Tuesday, July 8, 2008

How do I publish a Children's book - my thoughts on the process

Recently, one of my readers sent me an email asking some advise in this book world. I highly admire anyone smart enough to ask questions of people that are a little bit (or a lotta bit) ahead of them on the curve. Being pretty new to everything, I did my best. To further confuse you all, I am Jen, she is Jenny. With her permission, this is the interchange:

Her email: Hey there Jen!
I have 3 main concerns right now about my manuscript and the publishing process. Here are my questions:
1. My book is about our dogs. I won't bore you with detail, but since we brought our pups home about 16 months ago it has been a roller coaster ride, to put it nicely. Max and Molly have so many quirks, and as therapy for myself I wanted to introduce our dogs in a picture book. My story is more of a "meet and describe" type story, not a plot-based story. Ideally, I wanted to do a series, this being the first and then start doing plot-based stories. Do you think this is acceptable, or would most publishers frown at this type of story?
2. I have always been artistic, so I thought about illustrating myself. I bought some resource books, and am willing to put in the time and effort. I think the problem is, for EVERY PAGE of my book, I have specific visions of the illustration. If I decide I can't handle this, do hired illustrators do what you want, or are you at their mercy???
3. I looked into some publishing companies, but now I'm intimidated by their costs. How did you decide to publish the way you did? Are any of these companies legit? (Author House, Xlibris) Isn't there a way to publish at no cost to the author??? Or is that just for the best-selling authors?
Ok...I know I have more questions, but I'll stop here! I'm sure I've overwhelmed you enough already! Thank you SO MUCH for your time, and any advice you can give!!!

Okay, now for my words of wisdom.

Hi Jenny,
Sorry this took so long to get back to you. You asked fundamentally and philosophically difficult questions. The book business is a little snobby. Not quite wine-snob snobby, but close. While I am by no means an expert, let me explain how I see it.

There are essentially two/three ways to get published.
1)Submit and get accepted to a major/minor publishing house. There are many roads into this as well:
-get an agent (need to impress them with your work)
-attend book stuff/conferences/shows, etc. where editors speak and make contacts so that you can submit directly to them (need to impress them with your work)
-find publishers that publish similar stuff and submit to them (this is called unsolicited submissions or the slush pile (need to impress them with your work)

These are all pretty difficult until you are already famous and desirable. But there are stories of it happening. It takes A LOT of perseverance to do this. Some authors submit to upwards of 100 publishers before being considered. Some submit to one and get accepted. Some never get considered. It depends on how brilliant your stuff is, if you hit the right person in the right mood and luck.

If you get in this way, you probably get an advance and then some royalties after you have earned out your advance. (i.e. $2,000 advance and 3% of list to commence after the $2000 is earned). If you go this way, you will still have to do alot of your own marketing, but you will probably have assistance and guidance from your publisher. And if you don't do the art (or they don't want your art) they will pick. You have no say in illustrator, look, feel, etc.

This is the lowest cost entry into the publishing world. And one of the hardest to get through the first door. There are many, many resources about this path. Many suggest trying to write for Children's magazines first to get your feet wet.

Initially I tried this route. Some of my earlier (read not so good) attempts were submitted to the slush piles. No bites. Some tries at magazines. No bites. It is an over saturated market and they are really looking for things that will sell and hence make money.

2)Self publish 2a)The "easy" way is through a self-publishing organization such as Authorhouse, Xilbris, etc. I do not believe this is a good way. It just looks bad. They own your ISBN number (that is the 13 digit number on the book along the bar-code probably starts with 978). And it is really poo-pooed in the industry. If you were writing a book on crocheting steering wheel covers for tractors that had a very specific audience/market that you could easily tap into, ebooks and this type of self-publishing MIGHT make sense. Children's books do not really make sense unless it is just for your family and friends or ego.
2b)My route. Start your own publishing company. This is FAR more costly upfront. I really believed in my book "My Name is Not Isabella" and felt it could and would sell if done right (read content, art, construction, marketing, sales and distribution channels, etc. etc. etc.). And my husband believed as well. I did a lot of research. I did a lot of reading. And then we set aside a big chunk of money for me to try this. About a mid-level car. AND if I am lucky and sell all that I had made in this first print run, I may make $1-2K profit (before taxes). But if I can sell more, it gets better. If we get a second title, it gets better. It is probably a five year path to a profitable company that can afford to pay me. And it is learn as you go.
Going this way, you still fight the "self-published" label. My analogy is that they look at you like "OH yuk! Win-a-box," and you have to convince them to try it, it is really good. Some don't even try it, I mean wine in a box? Some try and don't like. Some try it and love it. It is a slow process. Ultimately my goal is to become a small independent publisher with a catalog of about 10 books a year. Then I can be one of those snobs. But this is a long way off.

So now that I have depressed you, let me answer your specific questions:
1) I don't know. I don't know what most people are looking for. I am sure that there are kids books about dogs. Some are fantastic and some are not. I am sure that there are many more about dogs that don't get published. Dogs could be good, lots of people have them. Dogs could be bad, lots of people write about their dogs. This is a classic, my pet/kids are so cute, I will write a story about them theme that pervades self-published stuff and can be what gives it a bad name. But if yours has a nice spin, an unusual thing, or is extremely well written, it could fly. Do your research. Go to B&N or the library and look and see what there is. Or search through Amazon.

Also, I strongly recommend you join a writer's critique group. Strangers, while being polite, can be an awful lot more honest than your friends and family. There is one that I have used online called Critique Circle. You get a free account. You critique other people's stories for credit. When you have enough credits, you can submit your own piece for critique. Look at some of the stories and critiques offered before you start.

2)If you think you can do the art, fantastic. This is not my area of expertise - I am, um, not. If you self-publish and hire, artists may or may not follow direction. It is an individual working arrangement subject to the personalities and contracts involved. However, if you find an artist that you like, I suggest you give them some latitude. Remember they may have some even better ideas and you should NOT be locked into it being YOUR dogs, but something that will appeal to a wide audience.

3)Hopefully the rant at the beginning gave you some idea about this. It is complex and there is not an easy answer.
So overall I would suggest you:
Join Critique group for your writing
Think about what you want out of this (fame, ego stroke, artistic outlet, etc).
Get Famous so you can do anything you want.
And then.........

Mention my wonderful book.

Hope this helps some.


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