This week’s post is from debut author Susan Robinson. She shares her experience of navigating the rough seas of children’s book publishing with her picture book When Poke Woke.
I’m an author! Cue balloons and confetti! I’ve been a writer since first grade, when I printed on lined yellow paper about Uncle Bob the policeman. Later there were stories about Zot, an alien who came to school, and Susan and Karen’s excellent adventure, a three-mile trek our three- and four-year-old selves took to my grandparents’ house. Grief over my son’s death spilled into a dozen journals and notebooks. But being an author means I actually finished a manuscript and followed through to publish it.
Are you an aspiring author? Perhaps my experience can show you what to expect or avoid.
Way back in 1994 a wildlife rehabilitator brought a hedgehog to my classroom. A story idea percolated in my mind for the next two decades. Although I never expected my first book to be a picture book, it’s the one that popped out after that long gestation.
When Poke Woke stars a hedgehog who longs to run and hop like his friends Ziggy the rabbit and Dash the squirrel. When danger looms, he realizes it is better to be true to his own nature—and saves his friends.
Three major drafts eviscerated the story to under a thousand words. A thousand words to craft an entire plot and unique characters! I assigned Ziggy and Dash funny alliterative phrases. Poke dreams of grub and beetle cakes. The Mangy Mongrel speaks only through onomatopoeia.
Words have power, so I don’t talk down to children. Like William Steig, I see advanced vocabulary, syntax, and rhetorical devices as discussion opportunities, so I worked hard on the literary nuts and bolts. Consonance and alliteration, assonance, and rhyme make the most of sound. Metaphor, imagery, and analogy, plus real setting details stimulate critical and creative thinking. To add excitement I included more than one hundred different action verbs.
Although I edit other people’s books, I asked someone else to edit and proofread my manuscript. Another perspective can highlight issues and errors you never imagined. Finally, my story was ready. I believed it good enough for traditional publishing and that the house would handle marketing.
Writer’s Market implies that a single click will drop into your lap dozens of editors clamoring to represent your book. Ha! The right keywords may cough up a list of companies, but then the real research begins. You must look at each firm—and editor—individually. One editor only represents books for kids 8-12. Another handles only Azerbaijani sports stories. This one wants books under five hundred words. Oops! The editor you’re seeking has moved to Iceland. Plus, every editor wants New! and Edgy! not a heartwarming traditional story. If your pigeon doesn’t drive a bus, he’s just a rat with wings.
Still, for months I compiled a list of editors. I checked submission guidelines (each unique), prepared letters, copied my story, and enclosed SASEs. Over the next five years (including a three-year time-out when I let the story languish), I sent forty-four queries. Compliments, but no contracts. Then, at the Lewes Writer’s Conference in the summer of 2018, Lois Hoffman vanquished my delusion. “Even with traditional publishing,” she said, “you still have to do your own marketing.” More research, this time on self-publishing. The winner—print on demand through Amazon’s KDP.
In October 2018 I Googled illustrators. One I liked wanted $8000 to illustrate my book. You can’t spend what you don’t have, so I tried art students at the University of Delaware. They wanted $3000+. On a whim, I looked on Fiverr, an online clearinghouse for writers and artists (other online services—Upwork, Thumbtack, Freelancer—operate in a similar manner). In the past I hired Fiverr artists to create a logo and to Photoshop my granddaughter’s face onto Elsa from Frozen.
“Illustrate children’s book” delivered dozens of artists. I reviewed every thumbnail and scrutinized eight whose samples I liked. This also helped me discern my style beyond, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart declared, “I know it when I see it.” Although initially attracted to pastel watercolors of realistic-looking characters, I lingered on simpler, more edgy characters in bold colors.
I did know exactly what I wanted in an illustrator—someone flexible and easy to work with whose English was proficient enough to understand small details.
I gave the eight artists a plot outline and paid each to sketch Poke. One never answered. Two drawings made me cringe. One artist argued with me. Another didn’t understand even simple English.
The final three artists submitted more detailed drawings, and I fell in love with Ezequiel Decarli’s Poke. I had found my illustrator (in Argentina!)—good English, great personality, edgy drawings, vivid colors, right price.
Ezequiel’s drawings were lively and fun. A few scenes needed revision—different perspectives, more action, emphasizing a detail, correcting a picture that didn’t match the text. He also shortened Poke’s long quills to short spines and changed The Mangy Mongrel from black to purple. Every day I raced to the computer as my story came to life one scene at a time. I fell in love with Ezequiel.
You’d think that was it—the book was ready for the oven, right? No. We still had to choose fonts for the title and text, design opening and closing papers, write biographies and dedications, prepare copyright information. Ezequiel created the covers and I wrote a synopsis, designed a logo, got ISBN numbers and barcodes, and listed Poke in Books in Print. Finally it was time for the final review. Although my proofreaders and I pored over it, two typos tiptoed through.
I hired Ezequiel in October, 2018. After 162 messages back and forth, he delivered When Poke Woke in January, 2019. Ezequiel prepared the pdfs (covers and inside pages) for me to send to KDP. The book was accepted.
The sample copy arrived and by February 16 my book was available for sale on Amazon!
I was excited as a puppy with a Louboutin. But the fun was over, as I entered the fear and loathing stage—marketing. After (you guessed it!) more research, I developed a plan including a variety of media, people, and events. An author webpage, business cards, a media kit, and blog articles were my first priorities. After updating my LinkedIn profile I scheduled posts for Facebook and Pinterest. I designed bookmarks and a banner and asked Ezequiel for character line drawings to use as coloring pages. Ezequiel created an animated book trailer.
For managing an email list, I found MailChimp frustrating and Constant Contact expensive. Despite a steep learning curve, I sent emails to my list and set up a web page freebie using Mailer Lite.
I Googled independent bookstores within twenty-five miles and was able to place Poke at four.
Visiting schools and libraries required a Delaware State Police background check. About thirty children enjoyed When Poke Woke and a craft at the Bear Library; a hundred people attended my reading at Woodside Farm Creamery. Friends and relatives arranged for me to read at several schools.
Still on my marketing to-do list are author fairs, parent workshops, and presenting through Delaware Arts. I also ran into Annie, the wildlife rehabilitator, and we are planning events together—my book, her animals. Maybe I’m not hating this marketing thing after all.
My publishing path was mostly paved, but I did trip on some roots and rocks. No one came to one of my book signings. No children showed up for another event. Figuring out how to count book pages and where to insert page breaks was difficult. KDP’s directions for margins, spreads, and bleeds were confusing and contradictory. Navigating Bowker/My Identifiers to get Poke listed in Books in Print had me screaming. I still don’t understand whether I should choose KDP Select or expanded distribution. And the research—! (Actually, I like research…)
Overall though, publishing my book has been absolutely rewarding. In some ways, the process is like childbirth. Holding my book for the first time didn’t come close to hugging my babies, but when that first box of books arrived on my doorstep I was a proud mama, showing them off. Children and adults love the book, and working with kids again has been energizing. Best of all, publishing and marketing When Poke Woke combines my three passions: reading, writing, and teaching.
Would I publish a book again? I already have! Spanish and Kindle versions of Poke are available. Publishing one title makes me itch to dust off other drafts—maybe the one about grief next? It never gets old, holding the book I, the author, created.
Susan Robinson, author of When Poke Woke, taught herself to read at four, wrote her first story at six, and taught the neighborhood kids at eight. A career as a classroom teacher, school librarian, and university writing instructor allowed Susan to share these passions with thousands of students. Being an author lets her spend lots of time reading to her grandchildren. She hopes When Poke Woke will inspire a new generation to love stories. Susan lives in Delaware with her husband and two miniature Aussies.
You can find her online at susanrobinsonauthor.com.
If you don’t want to go on this publishing journey alone, whether you need help with writing, publishing, or book marketing, set up a complimentary 30-minute Discovery Session to discover how to make your dream of authorship a reality.
“The journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step.”~ Lao Tzu