This article explains in detail how I went about self-publishing my illustrated children’s book, even though I had no prior experience of being an author, or working with illustrators, or selling anything to bookstores. The 7 steps I followed are detailed below:
- From Rhyme To Illustration
- Finding An Illustrator
- Implementing A Legal Framework
- Creating The Artwork
- Printing Solutions
- Selling To Retail
- The Tools We Used
A Job In The City
I had worked as a sales manager for one of the larger Fintech companies for about 8 years until I realised I needed to change things up. When I joined the company fresh from university there was that buzz of excitement. That camaraderie that you felt with your colleagues who are all new on the job, the social drinks, the promotions, the successes along the way, they all made me feel like I was part of something important.
And then, after quite a few years into the job, reality hit me. My favorite colleagues left or moved abroad, I didn’t get the promotion that I wanted, I started to dislike the same conversations with the same clients over and over again. The company went through several reorgs in quick succession; more structure, more external hires, more focus on quarterly returns, less fun. I was getting increasingly bored and frustrated. This probably sounds familiar to many people working for a large public company.
In the end, I felt that I was but a tiny cog in a giant wheel, easily replaced, working mostly for the people at the top of the food chain. I wanted to create something of my own instead. Something I felt proud of, something to benefit others, I needed to escape…
Escaping The City
So in September 2016, I joined a three-month course from Escape The City in London. Their slogan “Life Is Short. Do Work That Matters To You.” appealed. This was a course designed to help you move from thinking to building, and to give you the tools and confidence to build something of your own. I was joined together by 50 other people who were also interested to change their life around.
Every Wednesday evening they organised open mic sessions, where people shared their stories and creative ideas. I had been thinking about copying a successful product concept, the Gro Clock, which helps children sleep through the night by using a story and a lamp. So, to test my own creative abilities, I decided to write a children’s rhyme to help parents introduce a toothbrushing routine to their toddlers. I read that rhyme in front of people on stage that night. The response was fantastic. Many people loved the story and encouraged me to follow up with it afterwards.
This is how Routine Adventures was born.
How To Self-Publish A Children’s Illustrated Book: A Step-By-Step Approach
In the beginning, all I had was a few pages of rhymes. So how the heck do you turn that into a successful illustrated children’s book? Something that could actually appeal to children and their parents?
(FYI: I’m not an artist!)
Below, I have listed the steps I took to make it happen.
1) From Rhyme To Illustration
I really had no idea where to start, but I had seen something funny online that caught my attention: The Monster Project
I decided it would be fun to also have something created by children instead and reimagined by an artist. So I approached a number of primary schools to help me organise a monster drawing competition in their school. Fitzjohn’s Primary school in London was up for the idea, and the headmaster kindly invited me to the school to do the reading. I then picked the winning monster (below) and took that as a base for all further illustrations. I had my drawing I could show to the illustrators to reimagine.
The Winning Monster
2) Finding An Illustrator
If you do not plan to pitch your book via an established publisher, self-publishing is a good alternative. However, it does mean you need to find some good people to work with yourself.
The first thing you need is a good illustrator whose drawing style suits the book you have in mind. I looked around quite a lot, checked Behance and other popular illustrator forums, checked with friends and family and also tapped my Escape The City network. In the end, I chose to work with Lamia Sbiti, an Escape The City alumna. And she has been absolutely fantastic.
Lamia has taken on both the illustration and design of the book (not every illustrator will do this), and she has been a solid partner throughout the creation of the book and the wider business. What was also really helpful is that Lamia lived locally and was able to meet up with me regularly as we progressed. In principle, you can hire an illustrator from anywhere in the world, but if they are very remote it would be a lot more difficult to coordinate brainstorming or storyboarding sessions!
3) Implementing A Legal Framework
We then drafted a contract for the things we mutually agreed upon. It makes sense to be specific here. The topics included:
- The estimated time and cost of the project, paid in installments
- Grants of rights and copyright
- Royalties on sale
- Final delivery objectives
- Limitations (ie, what happens if the business becomes unprofitable)
- Authorship credit
- Overtime arrangements
4) Creating The Artwork
Here is a list of some of the things you will need to plan with your illustrator:
- Picking general color themes and mood boards for the style of the illustrations (See my Pinterest color inspiration board here)
- Completing a schedule for delivery of works. Things always end up taking longer than you think, but it is a good idea to have some deadlines to work to.
- Creating drafts for each page, your illustrator may choose to create very basic sketches and/or black-and-white pages first. Basic sketches are a good idea, because you may want to change quite a bit after the first versions, so you don’t want to spend too much time creating artwork you will never use.
- Refining drafts
- Finishing final drafts
- Designing a foreword or inside cover page
- Designing the cover: front, back and inside
- Designing of marketing materials. This is crucial, but easily forgotten when you just start out. You will want to have access to a number of illustrations supporting your sales efforts, such as social media banners, flyers, and images with backgrounds removed for your website, etc.
In our case we also wanted an “About The Creators” page in the book and a page about the monster competition. In fact, we organised a photoshoot with the girl who drew the winning monster. We made sure to sign a media release form with the parents to make sure everyone was comfortable with the photos being used for the purpose of marketing.
5) Printing Solutions
Once you have finished the design of the book you will need to consider your print options. There are basically two options: print-on-demand (POD) or traditional printing. POD only prints the book when an actual customer order has completed. There are several well-established POD options out there, such as Lulu.com and CreateSpace (Amazon), as well as Blurb and Bookbaby. There are several benefits of printing on demand, such as never ending up with stock you don’t need and the ability to produce cheap samples. However, there are also some disadvantages such as a higher per unit cost, the inability to sell to bookstores, and the standardised print options may not suit your exact requirements. We chose traditional print runs in the end because we wanted to distribute the book widely, sell via wholesalers and also have detailed options available for print specifications.
Some basic pros and cons of POD vs traditional print runs can be found in this article.
So if you decide on traditional print runs, these are the specifications you will need to consider
- Digital vs. Litho: Contrary to what many people think, digital is not necessarily worse quality print anymore. The production process and resulting look and feel is just different. There is a break-even point where litho becomes cheaper than digital printing. This is to do with different setup times of machinery, and the cost of running the machines, amongst others. The break-even point, where litho becomes cheaper than digital, typically lies around a minimum of 700+ books (this can differ from printer to printer).
- Paperback vs hardback or a combination of both
- Finished size: HxW in millimetres
- Proofs: Is a digital proof OK or will you need a physical proof? Some printers will provide a physical proof for free, others will charge quite a bit for it.
- Number of cover pages: typically 4 pages (front, back and insides)
- Nr of inside pages (most printers need a multiple of 4 pages if it’s PUR bound, see below)
- Printing Cover: 4 colour process (CMYK) is standard for the litho print method, but you may want to do something that requires non-standard colors such as gold or metallic effects.
NOTE: Choosing the CMYK process does not mean your print-work will only show 4 colours. Click here for more information.
- Text: The 4 colour process would be the default option again.
- Cover material and finish: We chose a paper-type of 350 gsm thickness with a soft-touch laminate finish for the paperback and matt laminate finish for the hardback.
- Text material: You want the book to feel nice in your hands, and to be strong enough to withstand some mild abuse by your key audience, children. We chose a satin paper-type (in between matt and glossy) with 170 gsm thickness.
- Binding: PUR Bound vs “Perfect” bound. PUR is very strong glue which will make the book a lot stronger. Perfect is cheaper. We chose PUR bound.
- Delivery address: Ask your printing company in advance, because some printers will charge you a lot more for delivery if you don’t live locally. (Be aware that printing in excess of 1000 books could be more than an entire pallet of books. Do you have enough storage capacity for this? If not, some printers offer storage solutions.)
You can ask your printer to give you various quotes based on different specifications. You probably want to ask for some variation in quotes based on volume of books and different paper-types or finishes etc. For example, ask for a price table of 1000, 1250, 1500, 1750 and 2000 books with either paperbacks or hardbacks.
We were pleasantly surprised when one of our potential printing companies took us around their production facility for a whole day to show all the different machinery and ways of producing the print work. This is definitely something you could ask for as well if you are thinking about publishing a book.
NOTE: You will need a PDF document of your finished artwork in appropriate format to send to the printers. If your illustrator only paints by hand, you will need to pay a designer to convert all the artwork to a print-ready PDF document.
6) Selling To Retail
If you decide to sell the book to retail, you have to consider the following:
- Waterstones, the largest bookstore chain in the UK, is very helpful and they support independent publishers to sell in their stores. But they will not buy directly from you. They offer full instructions how to become a registered seller here. It’s a great starting point to get familiar with selling your self-published book to bookstores nationwide.
- You will probably have to work with a wholesaler / distributor. For this relationship to be successful, you will probably have to offer up to 50% or more discount off the recommended retail price (RRP). Larger bookstores typically take about 30-35% off the RRP. So the remaining 15% is for the wholesaler.
- For argument’s sake, let’s say you offer a 50% discount and your book costs £10 you only get to keep £5 per book. Reduce that with the printing cost per unit, and you have an idea of what you can keep for each book sale.
- You will also need to buy your ISBNs from Nielsen, if you are based in the UK. (Different countries have different formal resellers, in the US it’s Bowker). Don’t try to buy them cheaper from anyone else. It may result in problems later on when you need to be recognised as a publisher. It costs about £150 for 10, and you will need to have at least 3 if you want to publish a paperback, hardback and official E-book format for platforms such as Kindle etc.
NOTE: you will need to set up a legal entity for your company as well.
- Once you are a registered Waterstones seller, you will still have to market your book to them as well. You can pitch the book to their central buying department, OR pitch directly to individual store managers. Each store has quite flexible purchasing rights, so if the central buying department doesn’t immediately purchase some copies, you could build a fanbase through selling store-by-store instead.
- When you are ready to publish, you will need to produce Advance Information Sheets to sell to bookstores across the UK. You can also send these sheets to journalists and bloggers in your field to try and get them to review the book for you. You should probably only send them an actual copy for free if they have agreed to write a review.
- Watch the following video or click here for more information on selling books to retail, from Richard McMunn. I found it very helpful.
Other routes to market could be selling via places like Amazon or to crowdfund your book. We did consider a crowdfund, but decided against it in the end because we felt it would ultimately be better if people can pick up the book and see it in front of them before they purchase.
If you can get any other endorsements or PR from anyone who is closely connected to the general topic of the book, it would be a good idea to do so. Don’t be afraid to approach people or organisations who may connect with your target audience.
We sent a sample copy to the Oral Health Foundation, and ended up being formally endorsed by them. In fact, they liked it so much they will even feature us prominently in their annual Smile Month campaign this year.
7) The Tools We Used
To conclude this article, I wanted to share some of the tools we used on a regular basis to help us put it all together:
- Website: If you want to sell via your own website or even run a pre-sale like we did, Squarespace offers everything you need. We got the Advance Commerce Package at £30 per month, which offers abandoned cart recovery, shipping carrier integrations and a variety of other selling solutions.
Other easy alternatives are Shopify, Strikingly or Wix.
(This website is built on WordPress.org. WordPress is ultimately more flexible, and its WooCommerce plugin would be able to assist. But if you have no prior WordPress experience I would advise against it.)
- Payments on web: Stripe
- Web Analytics: Google Analytics
- Project Management:You will probably need something to coordinate communication and to assign tasks to the various people involved. We used Trello to keep on top of our project management. The free version works great.
- Sending large files to each other and the printer: WeTransfer