One Way to Self-Publish A Children's Book
Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
"What was it you saw ? A Saw-Whet ? So what's a Saw-Whet?"
Our self- published children's book was a gift... from an owl.
When my friend, Linda Gast, showed me her appealing photos of a tiny Saw-Whet Owl with it's expressive eyes and confident demeanor, I knew these images needed to be shared with the world.
"This is a children's book," I told her, and began to prove it by penning a few lines to fit with the photos.
I know that most children's books start with the idea -- possibly some research -- then a story. The illustrations usually come last. Though we did this totally backwards, it proves that there are always exceptions.
After our first modest marketing attempt with hand-assembled books at a local street fair, we found that we could sell our little book about a tiny owl, "So What, Saw -Whet?", to complete strangers.
We had talked to a local publisher, and though it didn't quite fit with his line of travel and nature books, he did encourage us and gave us some useful information about pricing and promoting.
We applied for our business license, and IBSN numbers and opened a business account as partners in "Hummingbird Mountain Press". We invested our own funds to have the book professionally printed. We were publishers -- with an initial inventory of 2,600 books.
Linda set up a website. We signed up for Amazon Advantage which produces a very small profit, but did give us an aura of credibility and a way of publicizing our creation with book reviews.
We contacted children's book reviewers online and offered a review copy. Whenever we got a nice comment from someone, we asked if they would post it on Amazon (and anywhere else).
We mailed out fliers and post cards to nature centers, bird clubs and wildlife rehabilitators. I started started making e-mail contacts and found people who wanted to buy our book, in quantities of 6, 12 or even 20 at a time for a wholesale price. It was a modest start, but an encouraging one.
Partners Add Value
Self publishing requires multiple talents, which are not always packaged in one individual person. It is easier to handle the varied aspects of this enterprise if you are lucky enough to work with a partner who has complimentary abilities.
I had a little publishing and writing experience. She had some small business experience in addition to her photography talent.
We had worked together in previous years as a free lance writer and photographer for publications, so we already knew we enjoyed collaborating.
We share our work. We kept each other inspired with new ideas. We filled in for each other.
For us, the division of labor worked out in a natural way so that we did not duplicate or skip over important things like order fulfillment, and tax record keeping.
Our early hope was that we could eventually attract the attention of a "real" publisher who would take on the business tasks and leave us free to do more creating. But as we got into it, we began to see that there were advantages in being our own publisher.
Advantages of doing it yourself.
1. We were able to control the quality of the book. We believed that the superior photos deserved a heavier, higher quality paper than what is normally used. We wanted a heavy matte surface that would show off the images to good advantage, and would eliminate the possibility of type showing through from the other side.
2. We always knew where we stood financially, and we always knew exactly how much effort was going into marketing and promotion --- because WE were doing it ALL !
At that first street fair, the local elementary school principal noticed us and our book. She immediately invited us to visit the school and talk to the students about creating a book, about owls and about our book in particular.
She even arranged to have notices sent home so parents could send money to buy the book! We were invited to other schools, and since we had both been teachers we felt comfortable in those settings.
After almost four years, we had sold about a thousand books and were very close to recouping our original investment of start up expenses and printing costs, as well as taking care of our shipping and operating expenses.
We still had an inventory of about 1,500 copies. No, we were not making a lot of money, but we made some. Our profit margin was modest, especially since most of our sales were wholesale.
The experience had been very interesting, and it gave us some insight into what publishers and marketers must do.
We found out that certain marketing attempts produced few returns, and we made some mistakes.
On the other hand, we were very lucky that this little owl is very widespread, even though elusive. Nature centers that have gift shops, seem to be our best customers. We have sold to customers in about 30 states and provinces , and we have several multiple-repeat customers.
Measuring and banding a Saw-whet owl. This video give you a real idea of how small this owl is.
Our Best Customers
Naturalists all across the continent seem to be very interested in it. The book has an educational element that environmental educators seem to appreciate.
Librarians have told me that it is "fun to read aloud" and, of course, the photos are very appealing. We targeted our efforts to reach people who would be most interested in our subject, the Saw-Whet Owl.
I am sure, if we had tried to do this with a generic children's story book, it would have been much harder.
If things occasionally got a little hectic, Linda and I reminded each other that we were SUPPOSED to be having fun.
In fact our prime business objective is: "to have fun" . No one was pushing us except ourselves. This may seem like a selfish or frivolous ambition, but we both believe that it is the only way we can do our best work, and our best work will produce other benefits: Our books have raised money for nature centers, bird rehabilitation, educational groups and animal shelters. They have have also caused children to wonder, learn and think.
Yes, though we didn't become rich and famous, it was a worthwhile and rewarding experience.
Follow your dream! You never know where it might lead.
======= Photos by Linda Gast 2004
Seeing our book on Amazon was a big deal. Though we don't make much after they take their cut, they at least make it easy to refill their request for more books.
For more details on how we published and promoted our book, click on the link.