Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Zen and the Art of Self-Publishing Children's Stories Part 2 - "Where am I going wrong?"

Self publishing children's books. John Bull Printing Set Not Required

Regular blog followers of yore will recall that we used to spend a lot of time and effort championing the cause of Self-Published authors and illustrators. Our good old 'Indie Pen-Dance Wednesday' might've been one of the most pun-dreadful titles ever for an indie book slot but we took a look at a title a week, and published honest critiques of each book we read. We also published an article entitled "Zen and the Art of Self-Publishing Part 1" where we came up with ten top tips for would-be authors and illustrators delving into the world of self publishing.

Time has passed, life and jobs have changed, our spare time for writing the blog shrank away and we had to make a decision to cut our blog content, first paring off app reviews (which we were never very good at anyway) then self published titles. The decision to chop self-published and small indie coverage wasn't an easy one to make but for many reasons we moved towards reviewing things we genuinely wanted to read and as Charlotte got older, we could no longer review books that really weren't our cup of tea.

We still keep an eye on what's going on with self-published and small independent pressings though. Why? Because some folk really do push the boundaries of what you'd expect from self published authors and illustrators. For all the champions out there though, there are some who still don't quite understand why their books are failing to capture the intended audience. So let's have another look at some of the common problems we see with self published and small indie books now we're more prone to buying them ourselves when we spot a corker.

Here's ten more tips to help steer you straight if you're lost in the mire of putting out your first self-published work:

1) Seek criticism outside your comfort zone. Friends and family love you, and will inevitably be polite. Genuine constructive critics will give you an honest (sometimes brutal) opinion so seek them out!

Creative folk are wonderful human beings. Sometimes though, they need to really take heed of the first point we raised when we last produced a list of 10 "dos and donts" for self published children's books. Go and seek criticism out from sources that aren't close to you - trade the friends, family, siblings, children for folk who know their subject, know children's books, know how to write, know illustration inside and out, and won't shy away from telling you if your book is terrible. Yes, this is a scary prospect but is it any more scary than facing someone who's paid money for your work and isn't at all happy with their purchase, and takes to a public forum to say as much?

As an additional word to the wise on this point - please PLEASE do not pester authors and illustrators on Facebook or Twitter, asking them to help crit your work. They're busy professional people too, who really don't want to spend every waking hour on social networks fending off well-meaning, enthusiastic but ultimately overbearing would-be children's authors or illustrators who want their work given the once-over.

2) We can't stress this enough as it still seems to be one of the biggest problems with self-published children's books - 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 but still seek someone else's brutally honest criticism first!

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, commercial or otherwise.

The art. Starting right from the beginning, your cover is your introduction to your intended readership. If your cover sucks (and so, SO many do - in fact there are some pretty cruel blogs and tumblrs out there that take great delight in publishing the very worst Kindle book cover art) then your reader will instantly assume that the rest of your book is of similar quality! Thinking you're doing something whacky and cute because you draw your entire book in a child-art style is possibly the worst thing you can do. Kids can already draw like that, they want slick artwork "like grown-ups do" not stuff they could probably do better themselves. Sorry, but that really is worth reiterating.

Don't just stick a stock image on there either, with some hideous word-art font - and if you do resort to stock art, make sure you're using royalty free stuff not just an image you've spotted from a google image search.

Book design is also an art form in itself. If your book is badly laid out, difficult to follow, contains totally unreadable typefaces (and a mix of those liberally sprinkled throughout the text like pepper on a baloney sandwich) AND the in-book illustration sucks as badly as the cover art, people will round-file it quicker than you can say "cream cracker". Children's books adhere to some fairly strict rules when it comes to things like page layouts and page counts with good reason (google on the subject of children's book design and you'll see a huge wealth of really great websites showing you how to improve your book no end).

Some people do successfully bend those rules, or tweak them but when they break them, the results are often disastrous.

It's worth also pointing out that there are a ton of brilliant illustrators out there looking for commissions. Hire one, pay one, give them credit, and make your book shine but again, like any professional, do not badger them to work for free. They wouldn't expect you to come round to their house and fix their plumbing for free, after all!

3) Be mindful of other people's time. Time is more precious to anyone (particularly book bloggers) than a free book, even yours!

Some folk used to assume that we did nothing all day but write about children's books. Sadly, no one I know (and I know a lot of book bloggers) makes a living wage solely from reviewing children's books. Those who are parents have to juggle a hectic home life with a working life, and all the other things that happen around those too. Those of us who give up our spare time to write about books - often without payment - value time above pretty much everything else. Some folk (thankfully a minority) who approached us in the past were downright rude if we politely pointed out that we didn't review self-published or independently published books due to time constraints. Constantly trying to find polite ways to point this out was a huge deciding factor on why we dropped our coverage of self-published books. Rudeness will get you absolutely nowhere - Put it this way, if you were a chef, would you trust the opinion of someone if you had to force every morsel of food between their lips with a ham-fist before writing a dazzling critique of your restaurant?

4) If a reviewer doesn't respond the first time, what makes you think they'll respond the second, third, fourth and fifth time you ask them for a review?

Persistence is an admirable character trait in most other occupations. Sometimes though, persistence can turn very quickly into pestilence. We have a fairly clear stance on reviews that if we don't respond to you, we don't want to review your book. Other reviewers are the same - it saves having to sit there and explain why you don't want to review the book, or come up with a polite excuse why your book isn't suitable for us. In one or two cases, folk have either rudely assumed that because we've covered their previous work, we want to cover everything they do - or worse, they've actually described our taste to us as if they've magically read our minds and instantly know we're just going to ADORE their story about a cute little bunny who has lost his mummy. Pestering and nagging a book blogger or reviewer to review something takes us back to point 3 above - if you're trying to bully someone or force them into something, they're going to shut you out.

One of our pet peeves is being followed on Twitter or liked on facebook by self-published authors who we dutifully follow back, and whose opening gambit is a direct message telling us to check out their book. We've got eyes, we can see your profile, we'll see who followed us or liked us on Facebook and we'll click on your blog or website link. If we like what we see, we'll contact you to see if we can review your book (or we'll at least tweet about it or write about it off our own backs!) You're likely to be very quickly unfollowed or blocked if you push it up our noses.

5) Proofread your stuff and also tailor it for a prospective international audience if you're going for one, and don't nitpick people's reviews if they've been good enough to publish one. 

I remember when we reviewed a particular title which was atrociously written but had a really good core story, and was really well received by us despite its roughness and flaws. We published a review, and the author got in touch within minutes of the review going live to pick us up on mistyping / mis-spelling a name. My reaction was to dash out an email (which was never sent) proof-reading and picking apart every mistake they'd made in their book, pointing out all the grammatical errors, jarring rhymes and awkward use of language I found. I never sent the mail but boy oh boy, if you're going to nitpick someone's review, get your own house in order first!

6) Rhymes are not easy but so many people still go all-out to bludgeon a rhyming story to death

Bad rhymes really hurt a read-aloud enthusiast. I love reading well put-together rhymes that delicately trip off the tongue with cleverness and dexterity, like little sylphs. Some self-published stories written in rhyme seem to have been written but never read. This is the only reason I can think of for the awkwardness of some of these stories. Reading them is like walking barefoot across a hard wooden floor covered in Lego. It's almost a physical pain, reading something that is clunky and unwieldy. Authors who write rhyming stories well spend a great deal of time chopping, changing, adapting and perfecting their stories until they almost SING themselves off the page. If you can confidently claim that yours do - and better still if you've managed to write a rhyming story that reads like someone would speak it, then you've done a fantastic job!

7) Cliches kill a story. Originality rocks!

Remember that "Fluffy Bunny loves his Mummy" story we talked about in an earlier example? When we look for indie or self-published stories and books, we want to see the one thing that very few of them manage to capture (and the ones that do are the ones we'll actively seek out and purchase ourselves before reviewing them). Originality, a new take on a story theme, a new quirk, a new twist, a better way of doing something than anyone's ever thought of before. When it comes to writing, we're looking for something that makes us want to hug you with glee because you've come up with something so dazzlingly brilliant and original. When it comes to illustration, we want something that shows you've absolutely busted a gut to pour your heart and soul into it in a way that makes us gasp in awe. That sounds like a lot to ask for doesn't it? But some of you out there manage it, and more than once too!

Our ten biggest turn-offs in self published children's books story themes are:

1) Cute animal stories (particularly anthropomorphic character-driven ones)
2) Overly-moral tales with a life lesson in them served like having rocks thrown at your head.
3) Pirate books. Enough with the pirates already, please!
4) "I'm your friend", "I'm not your friend", "I'm your friend again" books
5) "Stupid daddy, smart mummy" books.
6) Really appallingly written sci-fi, fantasy or superhero books for kids. Someone, anyone write a really good one and you'll corner the market!
7) Over-long stories pitched at young readers. Pick the ten best bedtime books off your shelf and time yourself reading them. That's the length you're aiming for. Longer than that, and a child's attention will wander and they'll never want to read / hear that book ever again.
8) Books that feature the protracted rhyme type. Things like "Little penny was a lovely girl. Her cheeks were red, and her hair, it did curl!" (when have you EVER heard anyone speak like that? It's like being rubbed with sandpaper then doused in vinegar!)
9) Seizing on an element of pop culture to base your entire book around. Pop culture dates quicker than cottage cheese. If you want your book to be more than a momentary distraction, build it with shelf life!
10) Stories that rely too heavily on farts, poo, wee, burps, smells, grossness etc. Works OK in the scope of a good solid story but if your book's only theme is to try and gross the reader out, it might work a little TOO well and make them want to bin the thing.

8) Ask yourself a really important question. "What do commercial books have that my book doesn't?"

Often, the answer can be summed up in one single word.


The key to a good book is an equally good editor. Authors may hate the snips and tucks that take place between their word processor and the finished book sitting on a shelf, but will often readily admit that a timely edit can make a huge difference. Illustrators too may hate the constant revisions and changes, but these edits make the difference between a rough diamond and a finished polished product fit for shelves.

If the best editing job you've ever done is a quick once-over with a spell checker, you may need to spend more time tweaking and polishing. The best advice I ever heard about writing a book was to stick that rough manuscript away in a drawer or hidden elsewhere for a couple of weeks. Dig it out 2 weeks later and read it again. If you're absolutely sure that it won't suffer a few nips and tweaks after two weeks of gathering dust, then make those changes, take the plunge and revise your work. Polish takes practice, time and effort but your book will be all the better for it.

9) E-Books must follow all the above rules and more

There's a (quite sadly mistaken) belief that producing an E-Book is a route to being able to slam together a slap-dash effort with a "That'll do" attitude. Wrong. Very very wrong. E-Books and apps are probably an even tougher market to crack successfully than traditional printed work. For starters, your audience's expectations are higher. E-Books or story apps that suffer from all the problems listed above will never withstand competition from slick commercial-quality fare available for the same price or less. E-books or story apps that don't make the best use of the platform they're designed for will often be overlooked in favour of apps that embrace design, ease of use and slick production. Slap-dash or shoddy work in the e-book arena screams "I just dashed this out to make money as quickly as possible" so put in the effort if you're brave enough to embrace the challenge of producing a tablet or kindle-friendly tale.

10) Look in the mirror, hold your work up in front of you and ask your mirror self the most important question of all...(and be honest with your answer!)

"Why are you doing this?" That's the most important question of all. What is your motive for throwing yourself head-first into producing stories for children? "To make a fortune?" - Forget it, seldom few children's authors make huge amounts of money from producing children's books - even those who hit the best sellers list and I doubt any of them would honestly answer that they went into writing or drawing children's books to make a mint from it.

"Fame?" Ugh, no one likes a vainglorious person - doubly so in children's books. If you've gone into this purely to raise your own profile and agenda, folk will see through that very quickly. We've never actually genuinely heard of anyone who isn't already famous trying to write children's books purely for the attached peripheral hero worship they may accrue as a result of writing for kids (worth making that point to some of the celebrities who think writing for children is a great way to bump their other career up a notch or two).

"Because I love telling stories" - OK we're getting nearer to an acceptable answer, but think about it. Do you really love telling stories? Are you the sort of person whose head buzzes and fizzes with story ideas every waking moment? If so, then you'll have a zillion and one brilliant and original ideas to commit to paper, right?

"Because I wrote stories for my own children / grandchildren / nieces / nephews / siblings - who love them - so other kids will as well, purely by the law of averages." - That's a pretty big assumption to make and if you work purely on that theory, you may find it takes a long time to find kids whose taste is absolutely in parallel with your own children's tastes.

"Because I've seen what commercial authors do, and I think I can do better than that!" - Owch. Again we're back to a previous point. If you truly believe that, then your work should be absolutely knock-out right?

(By the way, there's no right and wrong answer to this question but we'd certainly give more due to someone who did it for the love of it and that shone through in their work).

So...owch, there it is - another ten things to consider if you're taking the plunge with writing, illustrating and publishing a book purely off your own back. Some of these points may sound harsh, some of them might even sound nitpicky, but these are ten more things that can make or break a self-published book in the eyes of the folk who matter. Not the critics, not the people who may review or write about your book on a blog such as ours, but the folk who are out there browsing the web, or listening to word of mouth recommendations about things their child could read or have read to them next. As with our other list we cannot stress this enough, if you think you have taken all the above points (and the previous ten we raised) into consideration and can honestly, sincerely, hand on heart say that you have ticked those boxes, maybe one day we'll catch up with your book sometime and check it out for ourselves (and pay for it at that!)