Looking back, it’s a good thing that I didn’t wait until 2021 to publish my first children’s book. After my son, Nolan, was born in August of 2021, the amount of time that I had to dedicate to publishing books dwindled significantly, along with my passion and drive for anything but sleep. 🤣 Luckily, at that point, I had been through this process once and knew what to expect. Plus, I already had a template for the book, having published the first book in the series just a few months before. So, I didn’t have to spend near as much time researching the process and figuring everything out.
Still, writing and publishing the second book was by no means a walk in the park. In the same way that each baby is different (sometimes I have a hard time believing that Avery and Nolan are siblings), each book is different and comes with its own journey and its own challenges and triumphs. As I reflect upon my experience publishing Book #2, I can’t help but think of the new things that I learned along the way. While there are surely more lessons than those presented here, I’ve included five of the biggest lessons that I learned while navigating the self-publishing process for the second time. Let’s dive in!
1. It’s deceptively hard to write a sequel.
When I sat down to write Book #2, I thought it would be easy. After all, I had Book #1 to use as a template, and I had been through the editing process before. So, I largely knew how to set the book's tone and pace the story and, to some degree, what constructive criticism to expect from Editor Sarah Fabiny. Plus, I had learned what meter was and how critical it is to the flow of rhyming picture books. (For those of you who have never heard of meter, it’s the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line, and it’s largely what makes rhyming picture books easy or hard to read. If the meter is good, the text flows nicely off the tongue. If it’s not, the reader stumbles. When I originally wrote Book #1, I wasn’t aware of the importance of meter. I knew that some text sounded better than other text, but I didn’t really understand why.) Since I had learned about meter before starting Book #2, I assumed it would make writing this book much easier…right? Well, yes and no.
As it turns out, writing a sequel is harder than it looks. While keeping the meter consistent was, indeed, easier the second time around, developing the character and story arcs proved tougher than I expected. What elements should I keep so that each story in the series feels consistent? Likewise, what elements should I change so that each story feels unique? I thought I had a pretty good grip on Book #2’s storyline, but it quickly got complicated once I actually started writing it. Ideas were colliding in my head, and I didn’t exactly know which direction to take the plot.
So, what did I do? Well, I ended up writing three different versions of the book initially. Each version was a slightly different length with a different climax and resolution. Version 1 was simple, while Versions 2 and 3 mixed things up and made the story a bit more exciting…or a bit more complicated depending on one's perspective.
After writing and revising all three drafts, I thought there was a clear winner. Then I read the “winning” version to a critique group (a group of fellow writers) and quickly realized that I had more work to do. The critique group was right. That version was too complicated. It felt like two different stories were competing with each other, and neither one was coming out on top. So, taking their advice to heart, I went back to the simplest draft and made another round of revisions before sending it to Editor Sarah Fabiny.
As it turns out, it’s a good thing that I listened to the critique group. I couldn’t have used the other two versions anyway because a certain off-limits character had a much more prominent role in their climaxes and endings…which leads me to lesson #2.
2. Do NOT write a story about a copyrighted character.
This seems like a no-brainer, yet it came as a surprise to me when Editor Sarah Fabiny said, “Rudolph is off-limits. He’s a copyrighted character, so you can’t use him in your story.” Of course-DUH! It makes perfect sense, but it had never crossed my mind during the writing (or self-editing) phase. Nobody in the aforementioned critique group caught it either (or maybe they were just too nice to bring it up). All I can say is this: it’s a GOOD thing that I hired a professional editor! (Thank you, Sarah! 😅)
Luckily, because I had already reverted to the simplest version of the story, removing the references to the famous red-nosed reindeer was a quick, easy fix. Phew! Disaster averted…and lesson learned! I will be much more cognizant of copyrighted characters when writing future books!
3. Writing and publishing a children’s book is a lot of work, but running a Kickstarter campaign easily doubles it.
I decided not to run a Kickstarter campaign for Book #2 for a couple of reasons:
1) I didn’t want to burden family and friends by asking them to support another campaign so
2) Having just had Nolan, I didn’t have the time or energy to organize a second campaign.
This decision made a surprisingly big difference in my publishing experience from Book #1 to Book #2. On one hand, it was really helpful that I didn’t have to prepare, market, and fulfill a crowdfunding campaign. It was a ton of work the first time, and trying to juggle those demands with the demands of a newborn baby (on very little sleep) would have been really tough. Without those campaign tasks to keep me busy (and the continual research that I was doing while publishing Book #1), the publishing process for Book #2 was a lot more calm…even sporadic. The editing phase was pretty short and sweet, and then I sent the book off to Christina Wald for the illustrations. She worked on it for nearly a year, during which time I only provided minimal guidance and input. This freedom allowed me much-needed time to focus on my family and to adjust to being a mom of two. 😊
On the other hand, not running a Kickstarter campaign made funding the production of Book #2 significantly harder. I was hoping that Book #1’s sales would fund a lot of it, but my initial expectations were a bit unrealistic. Despite consistent sales of Book #1, money was being spent on Book #2 a lot faster than it was coming in. (Fabulous illustrations are EXPENSIVE!) So, this meant that I had to dip into our personal savings multiple times just to make the book happen. While I still believe that the decision not to run a Kickstarter campaign was the right decision for me and my family at the time, I will definitely need to reconsider the crowdfunding option when publishing future books.
4. Expect the unexpected.
When I hired the original members of my creative team, I expected them to stick with me through Book #1 and beyond. At that point, I already had plans for at least one more book in the series, and I wanted the series to have a consistent and cohesive feel. One way to ensure that happened was to keep the same editor, illustrator, and designer for each book.
Early in the summer of 2021, I contacted all three professionals and asked if they’d be on board to create a second book. They all agreed, so I thought I was set. Shortly after that, we got to work editing the text and drafting and signing the illustration contract.
Fast forward to the spring of 2022, and the illustrations were coming along nicely. Christina was hard at work on the final art, so I decided to check in with Book Designer David Miles and make sure that our production timeline worked with his summer schedule. That is when he informed me that he was no longer doing freelance book design. What?!? Bummer!!! The book’s text was ready, the illustrations were nearing completion, and all of a sudden I didn’t have a book designer to help me put everything together. Fortunately, I still had time to research and hire a new book designer without negatively impacting our book production timeline. (I was lucky. If I had waited until the illustrations were done to contact David, I likely wouldn’t have been able to publish Book #2 until Christmas 2023!)
Ultimately, I hired Book Designer Veronica Scott as David’s replacement, and, despite her fabulous track record, I was nervous about how the book would turn out. I loved the design for Book #1, and I didn’t want to be disappointed with Book #2. To my surprise, however, Veronica exceeded my expectations. She was easy to work with, she was very responsive and punctual, and she delivered a high-quality product that feels consistent and cohesive with Book #1. In the end, I am so glad that I hired her, and I am so proud to put my name on this book!
So, I guess this experience taught me a couple of things:
1) I can’t assume that every creative team member is still on board with my project just because they said they were nine months ago. Plans change. People change. In the future, I need to communicate with each member at more regular intervals so that major life changes such as David’s don’t derail (train pun intended 😊) our book production efforts and timeline.
2) Despite my initial skepticism, it is possible to create a cohesive feel among books in a series with two different designers. Veronica did a wonderful job picking up right where David left off, and I could not be happier with how The Train Rolls On To The North Pole turned out!
5. Publishing a sequel makes many things easier.
While writing a sequel is deceptively hard (see #1 above), publishing a sequel is definitely easier in my experience. This is largely because there is already a framework in place for that book. In other words, a lot of things that had to be created from scratch for the first book can simply be modified to fit the second (for example, the book description and other metadata, marketing flyers, promotional graphics, launch emails, etc.). Creating all of this stuff takes time, so being able to modify existing material greatly reduces the total time investment. Hmmm…perhaps I should start working on a third Animal Express adventure…😊
When I started this journey in 2019 (writing children’s books) and 2020 (self-publishing), I wasn’t sure that I had what it takes to publish a children’s book. When it came to publishing, I didn’t even know where to start. As of this month, I have published two picture books, and I’m excitedly looking forward to the next publishing project…whatever that may be.
While I'm incredibly proud of both books and the publishing accomplishments that they represent, my favorite part of this whole endeavor has been how much I’ve learned throughout the process. I love learning about writing and publishing just as much as I love doing it, and I hope that by sharing my experiences, mistakes, and lessons learned that maybe...just maybe...I can help other current (or aspiring) children's book writers and self-publishers along the way.
For the 5 biggest lessons that I’ve learned about writing picture books, read the first article in this series here. For the 5 biggest lessons that I learned while self-publishing Book #1, The Train Rolls On, read the second article in this series here. For more information about Book #2, check out A Sneak Peek Inside The Train Rolls On To The North Pole or Behind The Scenes: The Evolution of The Train Rolls On To The North Pole.