Publishing Children’s Books: What Two Years Have Taught Me

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August 2015
by Darcy Pattison

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My first children’s picture book, The River Dragon, was published in 1990 by HarperCollins, and I’ve been involved in the industry since then. But in the last 24 months, I’ve made the switch from traditional publishing to independent publishing. My company, Mims House, now has 20 titles, and I’ve found that the discipline of creating a catalog helps me put everything together and look at my overall publishing program with fresh eyes. The catalog I created (mimshouse.com/catalog) gives me an idea of the continuity and thrust of my publishing program and actually helps me decide on what to publish next.

So far, as a publisher, I’ve focused on learning to handle production, ways to reach readers, and accounting.

Production Choices

Print. Knowing that the industry standard for laying out books is Adobe’s InDesign program, I went with a subscription only to it for $19.99 a month, forgoing the entire suite of programs. I bought a couple of books on this complex, powerful program with a steep learning curve, and muddled through the difficulties. But tutorials, such as Lynda.com, are available. Using templates such as Joel Friedlander’s at bookdesigntemplates.com also makes the learning easier.

In the end, though, it’s not the programs that matter as much as a sense of design, especially for children’s picture books. They must look stunning. One of my favorite resources for graphic design is The Non-Designer’s Design & Type Books, by Robin Williams.

Handling production also meant that I needed artists. I found Behance.net, Adobe’s social media site for artists, to be a valuable resource. Artists from around the world post their portfolios, and you can search and sort as needed. Most of them aren’t doing children’s books, though, so I needed to be comfortable with providing specs (which I got from my printer), doing art direction, and otherwise making sure my books would look fantastic. I negotiate illustrator contracts that fit my budget and use PayPal to pay artists overseas.

I’ve had mixed success. One artist had a fantastic portfolio but, in the end, couldn’t tell a story with her art; there’s a difference between commercial art and illustrations that tell a story. I had to cancel that project.

On the other hand, three books in The Read and Write Series, illustrated by Ewa O’Neill from Poland, are complete: I Want a Dog: My Opinion Essay; I Want a Cat: My Opinion Essay; and My Crazy Dog: My Narrative Essay. With such a great working relationship, I’ve commissioned two more books from O’Neill.

Another way I’ve dealt with the illustrations is by partnering with a friend, Kitty Harvill (kittyharvill.com). She had previously illustrated and/or designed books published by August House and Holiday House, and she is a fantastic wildlife artist and book designer.

Photo of Book CoverOur first book, Wisdom, The Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and Other Disasters for Over 60 Years, won the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Children’s Book Award and received a starred Publisher’s Weekly review. Our second, Abayomi, The Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub, was named a 2015 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book, and a Portuguese version was released in Brazil this June.

Because we have a contract spelling out terms, the only hard part about working with Kitty is the accounting (since we split profit; thank heaven for Quickbooks—see Accounting later).

E-books. Moving from print to e-book formats is tricky, especially for children’s picture books, because most e-books have flowable text while picture books depend on the illustrations and the text being perfectly aligned. That means a fixed-format e-book. In 2014, Adobe InDesign added the capability of exporting to EPUB 3, and I was enthusiastic because the resulting file sizes were about half what I was getting with any other program.

Why does file size matter? If you use Amazon’s Kindle Kids’ Book Creator program and choose a 70 percent payment schedule, Amazon charges $0.15 per megabyte as a download fee, essentially creating a print charge. At 8MB—a typical file size for a children’s color picture book—the download fee is $1.20. That limits what you can charge for your e-book.

You can, of course, choose Amazon’s 35 percent payment schedule, which doesn’t charge any download fees, but that limits your profits.

I tried the InDesign-EPUB 3 format route with its 4MB file size and submitted two picture books for IBPA’s Digital Book awards. That was a disaster. Because EPUB 3 is still in its adoption phase—and may never become an industry standard—there were too many problems. Without software updated to the very latest versions, the judges couldn’t read the files. Older Kindle and Nook devices didn’t cooperate.

That taught me an important lesson: When dealing with technology, go with the lowest common denominator instead of cutting-edge. Make sure all your customers can read your book.

I’m still not happy with my methods of creating e-books. Currently, I use Jutoh or the Kindle Kids Creator program. But I’ll have to stick to the tried-and-true for a while longer.

Gearing Up to Reach Readers

Pricing. Once I had arranged for my books to be produced, I looked at how pricing would affect sales. I use a single design created to fit all formats so that I can publish e-books, paperbacks, and hardcovers simultaneously.

Pricing for each is determined largely by technology. POD technology is more expensive per copy, which puts the hardcovers out of the range of most trade markets, but squarely in the range of library and educational publishing markets.

Paperback books fit most comfortably in the trade market, although I’m forced to price on the high side. E-books give me the possibility of worldwide reach, through Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Apple. My books have sold in Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Japan, India, France, Croatia, and other places overseas. In fact, Wisdom, The Midway Albatross is on the reading list for the 2015 Sakura Award for children’s books given by the English-speaking schools in Japan.

Distribution channels. For print books—both hardcover and paperback—I use print-on-demand technology by working with Amazon’s Createspace and Ingram’s Lightning Source, and their distribution puts my books in most online markets and makes them available via Ingram’s large wholesale operation. A Createspace Expanded Distribution option makes my titles available wholesale via Baker & Taylor as well. I use a subscription to PubAlley to check these listings. And I make sure I price the Createspace version to produce an Expanded Distribution profit of at least $2, which makes it worthwhile for bookstores to order my books. Sometimes I create a different edition just for the Expanded Distribution channel so I can keep pricing under control.

The fact that I have distribution via the major wholesalers means that bookstores might order one of my books. But why should they? You must give stores reasons to order your book, which might include reviews in major media and a major publicity campaign.

Discoverability by bookstores is a major hurdle. But so what? A fundamental mind-shift needs to happen if you want to indie-publish. You are in the business of selling books, not in the business of stocking a bookstore. You must go anywhere and everywhere necessary to sell books, and bookstores are only one sales channel.

Here’s the basic question that independent publishers of children’s books must ask: Where do people buy children’s books? Schools and libraries are the most obvious answer, and they buy from educational distributors. I worked to get distribution from major distributors such as Follett School Solutions and Mackin Education Resources.

For e-books, the usual trade markets made sense: Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Apple. But I also picked up the education distributors. School Library Journal reports that about 67 percent of e-books purchased by schools are bought through Follett, so that was a logical e-book distributor to approach.

For more on school use of e-books, see this 2014 survey from School Library Journal

Audiobook distribution has also been easy. I use Amazon’s ACX.com program to produce e-books, and it distributes to Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. I choose nonexclusive distribution, though, so I can also work with Findaway to place titles in education markets.

Accounting

I looked at various accounting programs for small publishers, especially AnyBook and Publisher’s Assistant, but I found them a bit dated, and they didn’t handle e-books in the ways I wanted, although they might be fine for someone who does only print books.

Instead, I use TrackerBox to keep track of the online sales at Amazon, Kindle, Nook, Apple, Kobo, and so on. And for everything else, I use QuickBooks. Its weak point is tracking inventory, and I’m still struggling to find a better way to track the small inventory that I keep for back-of-the-room sales.

Accounting in general involved a huge learning curve for me because I’d never taken any accounting classes. I bought a tutorial book and cried for a month, but finally made friends with QuickBooks. For understanding general business accounting, though, I loved Dawn Fotopulos’s Accounting for the Numberphobic: A Survival Guide for Small Business Owners. It grounded me in the numbers and told me where I need to pay attention.

What Next?

It’s been an exciting two years of establishing an independent publishing business. With production, distribution, and accounting firmly established, I’ll turn my attention now to marketing. Seeking publicity and marketing aggressively didn’t make sense until I was sure that people could buy my books at their favorite distribution point. I expect the next two years will show a big increase in sales because the groundwork is done.


About the Author:

Darcy PattersonDarcy Pattison has written about writing for many industry periodicals, including Writer’s Digest and the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, and her work has been translated into nine languages. In 1999, she created the Novel Revision Retreat, which she teaches nationwide. Her books have been named the National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Trade Books of the Year, and she has won the Arkansas Governor’s Art Award for Individual Artist for contributions to children’s literature. To learn more: darcypattison.com; MimsHouse.com.

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