Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Zen and the art of Self Publishing Children's Books (and getting them read). Ten tips for would-be authors and artists dipping into children's books.

Self publishing children's books. You definitely won't need one of these any more!
At ReadItDaddy we've championed self-published authors and artists involved in producing children's books largely off their own backs for a long time. We've seen the fantastic, the good and the bad. We've seen the truly dreadful, and we've seen the controversial. In today's digital marketplace, it has never been easier to put together a children's book and get it out there for sale.

A word of caution though, or rather quite a few words. If you want to work with us, we really need you to work with us. 

Rather cheekily we had the idea that it might be time for us to sit down and have a little chat about the dos and donts (in no particular order) but please pay heed to point one above all others. It's the one that people have the biggest problem with (but hey, it's all a breeze from there so don't give up at the first hurdle!)

1) Be prepared to take criticism like Rocky Balboa takes a good solid sock to the jaw. 

Your kids think your book is a great idea. They love your stories. Your mum thinks your book is great, and if you're very lucky your spouse does too. But when you release your book out there into the big (and quite often harsh and cruel) wide world, be prepared to take criticism. Constructive criticism should be the lifeblood of anyone involved in any artistic or creative process, not the poison in their veins. Don't hide the bad reviews simply to paper your walls with the good because it's the negative feedback that will make you stronger and perhaps allow you to change enough next time to win someone over that may have discounted you this time round.

2) If you can't draw, don't draw. If you think you can draw, don't draw. If you KNOW you can draw, go right ahead!

The number one thing that lets self published children's books down is the number one thing that can make or break a children's book in any marketplace it finds itself.

The art (particularly the cover).

Illustrations have to be so ridiculously good and amazingly tight for commercial children's books to compete in a market where fabulously talented artists live hand to mouth that your home-crayoned scribblings won't even get off the starting blocks with a publisher if they're not mind-bendingly amazing, and definitely won't win over a parent or reviewer if they're shelling out their own money for your work. It's a sad point of fact that your expertly written text, flowing rhymes and original (and sometimes extremely good natured and good hearted) idea can be blown to pieces in an instant when let down by its accompanying artwork. Very few artists are allowed the privilege of working in a style that's scrappy, busy and child-like and I'll guarantee you that each and every one of those artists will know their craft well enough to be able to knock that sort of style out with consistency and quality. If you really have a brilliant story, but suck at drawing and painting please please pretty please hire a talented illustrator, view some portfolios and get someone else to work with you on your idea - and please, don't insult them by expecting them to work for free or for eventual royalties. Artists have to eat, pay them up front but please definitely pay them!

3) Do not start out by pricking people's consciences about your book. Let them read it first!

Books written to achieve a better understanding of, or to raise the profile of an issue that's incredibly tricky to deal with in children's literature can be a moral minefield. Sometimes submissions feel like they're starting out by laying a guilt trip on the reader or reviewer before that person has read word one of the book or manuscript.

If you're cold-approaching a reviewer or reader with your book, let them see a taster, give them some information but most importantly let them read it first. If they 'get it' then your aim has been successful. If they let their children read it and they get it too (and ask lots of questions about it) you're on the home straight. If they get it, their kids get it, and they ask - nay DEMAND to read the rest, you've scored a home run.

4) Please be polite! Don't be rude or pushy and please do not pester. We will always be polite back (if we do reply!)

The number one reason we don't respond to unsolicited emails about self-published children's books is because your book would be unsuitable for our blog or for us to review. The number two reason is because you asked us 20 times, did not take no for an answer when we politely declined, or worse - decided that because we followed you on Twitter, liked you on Facebook or perhaps even reviewed a previous book positively, we're beholden to you and we'll want to read everything you've created, are creating, or will ever create in the future.

That's a bit rude isn't it? Have you ever dealt with an unwelcome cold sales call on the phone or on your doorstep?

We started out reviewing self-published titles we liked the look of and sourced them ourselves. We've largely gone back to doing that because we like to make the choice. It's absolutely wonderful that people think that ReadItDaddy is important enough to be a good place for people to see your work (and  believe us, we're extremely grateful that they also offer to send us amazing books to read and review free of charge) but we maintain this at all times - we choose whether to review or not to review, and what Charlotte says goes so if she doesn't like the look of your book, we may either choose not to review it at all, or point out as politely and diplomatically as possible why it wasn't liked in a review. (With regards to this policy, please see Point 1 again)

5) Please don't split hairs and nitpick. At the same time please do give us all the information, links and images we need for our type of review. 

ReadItDaddy is a blog, unfortunately it's not a paying job. It's not what we devote 7.5 hours a day to - in fact most days we're lucky if we're in bed before midnight because we burn the candle at both ends to put together our reviews. We have to because we like to be prolific, we like to ensure that there's a TON of things to read on the blog, and that it's updated as often as humanly possible.

I hope it comes across in our reviews that we put a lot of effort into gathering Charlotte's opinions on the books, tying them in with our own, and producing something that doesn't just read like a regurgitated press release or a copy and paste job from an Amazon review.

To that end we don't get everything right. We misspell people's names (imagine trying to type Mizielinski 20 times in the space of a review at 5 to midnight when you've spent the last 5 days suffering from insomnia), sometimes we link the wrong images in our headers, or stuff up the text in the header (and as all the headers are designed in Photoshop and exported as images, correcting them is a lot harder than you'd think - yep, my bad). So please be patient with us. We will correct them but there's nothing more soul-destroying than pouring a huge amount of effort into a review and the only comment you get at the bottom is "You missed out the apostrophe in my name or you used the US cover not the UK one".

6) Rhymes are fine, but make them flow. Work those suckers until they're buttery smooth and trip off the tongue.

You are one of those brave souls that puts together rhymes and weaves them into a children's book. You deserve adulation and credit but just hold on a second there. You have struggled long and hard to find a word that rhymes with "hovercraft" and wedged that sucker in with chewing gum to make it fit.

Reading it back, it sort of works OK in your head. But is it universally going to work when your book is read aloud to your target audience of 3-6 year olds? Children who don't read your book themselves or may be learning to read but need rhymes and text to flow just as much as adult readers do.

We've seen many brilliant rhyming books that are a joy to read but we've seen so many that are the children's book equivalent of throwing an armful of dictionaries down a spiral staircase, attempting to read them as they fall. I refer you to Elli Woollard's article for this very blog on rhymes. Read it, read it again, soak it up through your skin until it's tattooed across your brain because the lady speaketh the truth.

7) If you have some brilliant ideas but can't get them to 'glue together' in written form, take a creative writing course. Better still, take a short course on how to write for children. 

This sounds like common sense, and it's a piece of advice I wish I'd taken years ago. Writing, particularly writing for children, isn't as easy as you'd think and quite often there are rules to be adhered to, magic formulas for page spreads / word counts and a whole stack of fairly rigid guidelines publishers issue when accepting manuscripts. WITH GOOD REASON. Any creative will tell you that rules and regs are there to be binned, and that they stifle creativity or expression. That is true but believe me, you'll soon see why those simple rules and regs exist the minute you start putting a children's book together and perhaps testing it out on a willing audience.

Too wordy and the kids will lose interest. Not wordy enough and it'll be nigh-on impossible for you to call your story anything but a pleasing piece of prose. Illustration placement must be worked on (and believe me, even the world's best author-illustrators often hand over the reins to someone who knows how to lay a book out properly and edit it properly before it even gets a whiff of shelf space at your local bookstore). If this all seems like black magic to you, I beg you - urge you to take a short writing course (The Open University do some fantastic creative writing courses, but you'll probably find local libraries or independent bookstores will also know of local creative writing workshops or contacts too).

8) Do your research. Read as many children's books as you can, read up on new authors and illustrators, and get to know the business a little before jumping in with both feet.

There are two reasons for this. One is pretty obvious - someone else might've already come up with a best selling book that's very close to or is a far better version of your idea (again believe me, I've been through this particular heartache! Bah!) The bigger the author (and the publisher), the less likely it'll be that your take on the story will be well accepted either by your readers (who will have read the odd picture book before) or a publisher if you decide to take the plunge and submit your idea for publishing or to an agent.

Getting to know publishers and the business, and the authors themselves via social media or just reading about their books and projects on their blogs is a great way to start to get to know the industry and those who work in it, or actually rely on it for their day to day living. In essence your self published book will be competing against these folk who have the backing of an agent and the resources of a huge (often multinational) publisher to put together fabulous books.

9) Be realistic about your expectations from indie reviewers and bloggers vs 'proper' press

This is the bit where we stick our head in the noose for a change. Blogging about children's books, particularly if you squeeze it in between a full time job, being a full time parent and trying to scrape together a bit of 'you' is one small way of spreading the word about great children's books. As we said earlier, we truly do burn the candle at both ends quite often, and there are tons and tons of children's book bloggers out there - each with their own way of reviewing. Some have ratings, some turn their posts into miniature works of art, some involve their children and some don't - they purely review children's books because they still love them to bits and think they're important.

We're just one of the many. Our approach is to review as many books as we can, as timely as we can, from a variety of sources (yes, including you lovely indies) but always at the core of the blog is one little girl and her opinion. You see, I might come up with the text of the review but it's always without exception drawn from observations from Charlotte, things she's said while a book is being read to her (or while she's reading it herself), the frequency it was asked for as a bedtime book - or perhaps even conversations and activities that have been triggered after the book's covers have been closed. We are honest, and though some folk have made the criticism that we're probably a bit "too nice" about some books, we really do rarely find a stinker in our review pile.

10) We keep saying that "E-Books are tough for us to review" - Why is that?

Obviously for an independent self-publisher, E-Books are the easiest way to get your work into the hands of a would-be reviewer or reader. Often for a reviewer they are a nightmare and we thought it only fair to try and describe why.

For starters, there's a level of inconsistency that comes with a book in E-format, depending on what the end-user is reading the book on. iPad with lovely retina display? Great! Kindle Fire? Yeah that's fab too. Nook or old style Kindle? Ah...

Producing a book in E-Format that's going to look great (and read well) on a variety of devices is pretty tough, more so if you have any dealings with Apple and their approval process for e-books (and their constant changes to iOS versions!)

There's also the other thing - E-Books may be hailed as 'the second coming' in publishing for all the whizzy whistles and bells that often accompany modern well produced (and well funded / budgeted) titles, but parents often struggle to get children to engage with e-books in the same way they'll engage with printed titles. For most parents (particularly us), as soon as the iPad is switched on, the very last thing a child will want to do is read through an e-book. Not because they're awful but because most electronic methods of reading books (aside from kindles, nooks etc) come with a whole host of other distractions that a child would rather play with.

Electronic methods of reading books are also fairly inconvenient. In the time it takes for the iPad (or other e-reader) to boot up, most parents could have already selected a book from the child's shelf, and snuggled down to read it with their youngster.

Lastly there's the price thing. "Free" E-books often come with the pre-imagined stigma that "Free" means "dreadful quality" or "Not worthy". On the other end of the scale, expensive E-Books ('expensive' in app terms, so anything over £2.99) can sometimes out-price printed book versions. This may be of less concern to self publishers but uppermost in a parents' mind is the longevity of an e-book title. Can it be read and re-read? Will all those whistles and bells actually provide long term enjoyment to balance out the cost or are they purely window dressing. For educational titles, will the child rapidly out-grow the e-book or app or will it grow with them (and then you may kick off a whole other hornets nest of microtransactions, we won't get into that here).

So there you have it, those are ten things we take into consideration when we receive requests from self publishers or folk representing them. We have unfortunately had some instances recently where folk have been stomped roughshod all over Point 4 in our list, which has made us very reluctant to carry on reviewing self published titles at all, but we do love the diversity and the originality of the majority of self published / indie published titles, so please do keep on doing what you do!