Updated February 6, 2020
My Experience Self-Publishing Children’s Picture Books
I’ve had a number of people ask about self-publishing children’s picture books and interest in exploring it for their own projects. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned through my experiences. I self-published Neela Goes to San Francisco on my own in 2016 and Priya Dreams of Marigolds & Masala with a hybrid publisher in 2019. There is so much to learn about the publishing world and many ways to publish, so keep in mind that this is only based my experience. I encourage you to do further research to find what is best for you (I’ve included additional resources at the end). I hope this is helpful!
I'm an artist, illustrator, and writer with a background in graphic design and branding. I initially wrote and illustrated my first picture book, Neela Goes to San Francisco, for my niece as a one-off gift. I wanted Neela to have a memory of visiting me as she grew up and I loved reading to her so a book seemed like a good present. The first time I read it to her I was blown away by her complete delight in seeing a character in a book that resembled her. Neela’s reaction made me think more about how powerful imagery is for kids and how important it is for them to see themselves reflected in the imagery and stories around them.
Fast forward a couple years later when I finally got the courage to publish it more widely to share with other kids. After doing some research, I learned that the children's book industry is incredibly saturated and competitive. Many publishers do not take unsolicited submissions (meaning they require you to have an agent to submit). There are some publishers that do allow submissions without an agent. If you find a publisher that is a good fit for your book and they allow individuals to submit, it can take awhile (maybe 3-6 months) to hear from them if they are interested. If they aren't interested they may never reply, because they get so many submissions. At that point I was busy working at a design agency full time, so keeping this book as a small personal project made the most sense. I also felt I had some of the skills (definitely not all!) that it takes to make a physical book like illustration, design, production file setup, and printer experience. So I gave self-publishing a shot knowing that I’d have to do a lot of learning along the way (cue constant online searching). I did a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds for printing the book.
After the book was printed and I fulfilled all the Kickstarter orders, I started learning about how to get my books into the hands of people beyond my online shop. I wanted to get my books into local independent bookstores and gift shops. I quickly learned that it’s incredibly difficult to get a book into bookstores unless it is in traditional book distribution channels (details below). But with a lot of work, I was able to get my book into many local gift shops even without being in standard distribution. I focused my efforts on small shops that have curated kids or San Francisco themed gifts. As of now, I still have it in about about a dozen local shops and a few local museum shops.
For my second book I wanted to reach people more widely, so I knew I needed to get into standard distribution channels to even have a chance to get the book into stores and libraries nationwide. I dug deep into research and ultimately found that I couldn’t get into distribution channels on my own unless I used a print on demand service. I had a clear vision for the printing and binding quality for this book and the print on demand services could not meet those needs. I considered traditionally publishing but there were life circumstances that made me decide to go for it on my own again. I had recently learned about hybrid publishing and was drawn to the idea of having an editor to collaborate with AND they could get me into standard distribution. I still had to fund everything (more details below), but I had some guidance and at least a shot at distributing my books more widely.
I’ve outlined some of the options that you have for publishing below. If you decide to self-publish, give yourself some grace and keep in mind that you are going to make mistakes. But by doing so, you will learn a TON along the way. For me, going through it and figuring it out was the best way for me to learn about publishing.
Overview of Steps to Consider:
This is an overview of the steps you will want to research and consider when making a book. Consider what parts you can do yourself and what parts you will need assistance for. If you are self-publishing, depending on your background you may be able to complete many parts on your own. Even if that’s the case, you will likely need to hire people for at least some steps:
- Visual Character Development
- Book Design
- Nitty-Gritty: Obtain an ISBN + barcode, Filing for copyright, Filing with Library of Congress
Right now there are three publishing methods that I am aware of: Self Publishing, Hybrid Publishing (a mix between self and traditional), and Traditional Publishing. Below are some of the key differences that I’ve identified that may help you make a decision on how you want to publish.
NOTE: I have only worked with one hybrid publisher so my thoughts may not fully apply to all hybrid publishers. Take care in choosing a reputable partner to work with if you go this route. I also have not traditionally published so my notes below are based on research, not experience.
Creative Freedom: How much control do you have over your project?
Self Publishing: You have the final say and creative control in terms of concept, writing, illustration, design etc. You can also work within your own timeline and adjust as needed. The downside is you don’t have industry expertise to guide you, you handle project management, and you have to stay accountable to yourself to keep the project moving. You will likely need to commit a lot of time to research throughout the process.
- Hybrid Publishing: You retain creative control but have some light industry guidance. You retain some control of the timeline but also have to stick to something. You will have to project manage and keep your project moving but depending on who you work with have some assistance in this area.
- Traditional Publishing: You have to pitch your idea, likely more than once, in a very competitive industry. If a publisher selects your story and you sign on with them, you must be very open to make changes based on their feedback. Generally feedback is great thing, because you will be making your book as good as possible through revising. But you also might have to give in to changes that don’t align with your creative vision. You would probably be on a strict timeline. A strong benefit is you have great industry expertise to guide you. If you are not an illustrator, the editor will likely be the one to choose the illustrator and work with them directly.
- Self Publishing: You have to seek out and hire any experts that you need. For example, you may or may not want to work with a freelance editor. Or if you aren’t illustrating and designing your book, you will need to hire people for those elements and negotiate a contract. Consider this for each step in the process listed above.
- Hybrid Publishing: Many of them will help you find experts for each step of the process whether they are in-house or people they will help you hire. They likely have connections with printers, as well, and may help manage the printing process. The hybrid publisher I worked with offered services a la carte so I was able to tailor what services I hired them for based on my needs.
- Traditional Publishing: They have expertise and connections for many of the steps in the process including rigorous editing, character development, and illustration direction. They would find an illustrator, have book designers, provide proofreading, handle the printing process, and more.
- Self Publishing: You will have to research and obtain some of the nitty-gritty elements of making a book – obtaining an ISBN and barcode, filing for copyright, filing with Library of Congress, etc.
- Hybrid Publishing: They will likely handle most of these steps or at least walk you through them.
- Traditional Publishing: They will handle these steps.
Costs/Payment: How do elements of the process get funded and do you get any payment up front?
- Self Publishing: You have to fund everything including but not limited to experts (illustrator, designer, proofreader etc), printing, shipping, storage, marketing, distribution. No one will be paying for your time upfront. If there are some steps in the process that you can do, then you don’t have to pay anyone to do them but have to commit time to those elements.
- Hybrid Publishing: You have to fund everything above PLUS pay the hybrid publisher for their services. No one will be paying for your time.
- Traditional Publishing: As far as I know, they pay for mostly everything above. The author may have to pay for some of their own marketing, such as book tours or if they want to push the sales of the book. Generally you are paid an advance as well as a percentage royalty on sales after production costs are redeemed.
- Self Publishing: You have to research and put together a marketing plan. The reach of your book depends on how much time and money you put towards this.
- Hybrid Publishing: They provide guidance in putting together a marketing plan. You are still responsible for detailing and executing that plan, so you need to be willing to invest time and money if you want to book to sell.
- Traditional Publishing: They will handle creating a marketing plan and use their industry connections to get your book in front people that you may not have access to on your own. They cover many of the costs but you may need to pay for some of your own marketing efforts. I’ve heard that it’s becoming more common for author’s to need to take on more marketing responsibility.
Distribution and Fulfillment: How does your book get on shelves and in hands?
This is a big one if you want to sell your book widely (more than locally) and in stores! Bookstores, even Indie bookstores, usually do not wholesale books directly from individuals because it’s inefficient to order from one person and cut them a check when they can order a bunch of titles from one large distributor (like Ingram or Baker & Taylor) who will then turn around and pay everyone as needed. I had no idea about this until I started trying to get my first book into stores. I have not found a way for an independently self-published author to get into these distribution channels unless they do print on demand, which I’m not interested in this because I want high quality control with printing. I know this is a giant bummer and one of the biggest barriers for self-published authors. Just keep in mind that bookstores are in a tough position right now given how the industry has been going the last decade. You may need to get creative on how your get your book into people’s hands!
- Self Publishing: You figure out all of the places you are going to sell your book (online, in stores etc.) and figure out how to get them in there. You will likely be storing all your books a home (hello cardboard box furniture!) or finding a storage facility to hold them for a fee. When books sell to an individual or store, you will package and ship it out. You will have to take time to package/ship, cover packaging costs, and sometimes shipping costs depending on what your terms are.
- Hybrid Publishing: If you choose to, they will help you set up with warehousing and fulfillment. The warehouse will store your books and ship out orders as they come in from book distributors and sometimes directly from stores/libraries. Stores and libraries will be able to order your book from the distributor they use, but in order to make that happen you have to make sure your marketing is strong enough that the bookstore buyers and librarians know about your book. They won’t know to seek out your book among the thousands of titles in the distributor’s catalog unless they have heard about your book. The distributor and warehouse do not market your book for you. You will also have to pay upfront setup fees, continual service fees, and shipping. There will be about a 6 month lag before you see any money coming from sales because of the standard system of payments. It’s a complex, confusing system so expect to spend time figuring out your sales and payment statements. The big perk is that if you market your book well, you can get it into libraries, stores, and ultimately into more hands!
- Traditional Publishing: They handle all of this and you don’t have to lose any sleep over it.
Money and Time
For me, self-publishing children’s picture books has NOT been a significant or reliable source of income. It’s costly and time-consuming to make the books and takes additional time and money to market and get the book out into the world. Why do I do it? I have a passion for reading, storytelling through art, am a strong believer in the importance of diverse representation, and strongly believe in the positive influence that reading can have on kids. It also ended up opening doors to new opportunities for my business, helped me develop my writing and narrative illustration skills, and connected me with people. For all of those reasons, the substantial time and financial commitments have been valuable to me in non-monetary ways. Do some soul-searching on why you want to make a children’s picture book and that might help you understand if and how you want to do it.
I’ve done Kickstarter campaigns for both of my books to fund the initial printing cost. These have been great in fronting the initial print costs, helping me understand how many books to order (the more books you order the less it costs per book to print), and gaining some buzz around the book. That being said, creating a successful campaign, managing the campaign while it’s running, and executing on it is very time consuming. I had a strong level of confidence going into the Kickstarter that if it got funded, I could execute and deliver what I promised to the backers. If you decide to do a Kickstarter or other method of crowdfunding, read up on how to run a successful campaign and make sure you understand all of the fees, reward, shipping, and packaging costs involved to ensure you are budgeting for everything.
Ask Yourself Questions!
The best way to decide how you want to publish is to ask yourself a lot of questions about your personal situation: Why do you want to make this book? What are your goals for the book (reach, monetary goals, non-monetary goals)? What parts of the process can you do on your own and what paid help do you need from others? How much time and money are you able/willing to put towards this book? Is making books something you want to pursue as a career or is this a personal project? Does the process of making a book have potential for improving your skills or opening up other business opportunities? Be specific when you answer these questions and it will guide you to which direction you should go.
I hope this helps you figure out what you want to do with your book idea. Putting a book out in the world has not been easy but it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Hearing a child’s reaction to a book you’ve made is golden – their excitement because the character in the book has resemblance to them or hearing about how much they connect to the story or how it gave them a window into a new world. Hearing them giggle and discover new things in the illustrations. Golden.
Check out the resources below for further reading. And best wishes to you, whatever you decide to do!
“Publishing Options for Art Brands,” from February 13 Creative
February 13 Creative works with artists to help them build their art brands and businesses. This recorded discussion is about book publishing and exploring both self-publishing and traditional publishing. I was a guest and talked about my first self-publishing experience (note that this was before I hybrid published) along with Katie Daisy who has traditionally published. It costs $5 to watch (the small fee goes to F13). Beyond this video discussion, F13 is a fantastic company to consult with if you are an artist and want to dive deeper with them on building and evolving your art business.
There are a number of resources on Jane Friedman’s site that I’ve found helpful including a blog with a lot of articles that discuss self-publishing, traditional publishing and book marketing.
“Illustrating Children's Books: Creating Pictures for Publication” by Martin Salisbury
I found this book helpful especially for character development. This author has a number of other books around this topic as well.
“The Surprisingly Complex Principles of a Successful Picture Book” by Melissa Manlove
So, You’ve Written a Children’s Book…Now What? by Ariel Richardson
Article about submitting proposals to publishers. It’s worth doing more research on this topic around finding publishers with the right fit for your book, what kinds of books editors are looking for, the process of submitting, and what to include in proposals.