My Experience as a Startup Guy Writing a Children’s Picture Book

I recently took a break from my full time work at Startup Timelines (which is actually under maintenance today) to write my very first children’s book, called Alex Masters SEO.

In the book, our young hero, Alex, learns to leverage SEO (or Search Engine Optimization) to grow his online store. It won’t be easy though — he has to build his backlinks and find creative ways to increase his page rank and show up first in search results.

Normally, I have always worked on making websites or apps, but I thought I’d switch it up this time and work on a children’s book instead.

I thought it’d be cool to share some notes and insights about my experience throughout the whole process.

Where did the idea originally come from?

The idea originally came to me as my friend and I were talking about coding bootcamps. He mentioned that there were a lot of bootcamps not just targeted at adults but kids too nowadays. I wondered why but eventually learned that parents were beginning to realize the importance of coding in the decades to come and wanted their children to be prepared.

I knew there were already a ton of coding bootcamps, summer camps, after school programs, and a lot of resources online teaching kids how to code. Even I am a self-taught programmer and have been making websites since I was 10 years old.

However, when I thought back to when I was younger and as I got older … I really wished I had learned more about marketing/growth, not just technology.

I remember the days where I would put out a side project and constantly get slapped in the face because no one would hear about it, or I couldn’t get the word out, or I wasn’t sure if people even wanted it.

As a young tech guy, I had initially dismissed marketing as something irrelevant done by sleezy business-people to trick others into buying their awful technology. Quickly though, I grew to realize marketing was an essential skill and a part of the whole process of releasing new things.

I eventually pursued marketing as my degree (instead of computer engineering or CS), but to this day, I still wish I had been exposed to the ideas of marketing a product/business from an even earlier age.

Really? A book on SEO for Children?

Following this train of thought, I wondered what resources existed already teaching kids about marketing in a fun and digestible way. I quickly learned that no one was teaching kids this valuable skill.

At first, I thought I wouldn’t have time to write it, but honestly, I felt compelled to. This is, after all, the book I wish someone had given me when I was growing up.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized this book could help prepare the next generation. Without a doubt, today’s kids are more empowered than ever, through the ubiquity of internet access, learning resources, and powerful devices, they can release projects and start businesses from a much, much earlier age. Not to mention the stuff they could launch as they get older, which could very well change the world.

Eventually, I chunked out a some time in between late November and early December to write this book and I’m so excited to release it!

The Publishing Process Demystified

It got difficult at some points, but the process of publishing a children’s book was not as tough as I thought it would be.

The first thing I did was go to the library and closely study all the books I enjoyed when I was a kid. Everything from Dr. Suess to The Giving Tree. I also looked closely at how other authors relayed complex ideas to children and distilled them in very crisp, yet engaging ways. After all, the miracle of story telling is sharing lessons with children and packing them in ways they can digest and be excited about.

I began by writing the first draft of the book, the working title at the time was, “Alex’s First SEO”.

Earliest draft of Alex Masters SEO

Once I had a draft going and the main elements of the plot figured out, I began seeking an illustrator. I then reached out to some folks in my network asking them if they’d be interested in the idea. However, due to my own time constraints and short notice, I was not able to find an illustrator who was available immediately.

I decided to look online and eventually found an illustrator with tremendous talent who was also interested in the project. After exchanging a few direct messages, I awarded him the project and we quickly agreed on:

  • price
  • the number of illustrations (19 + front cover + back cover)… the online publisher I used, Createspace, had a minimum of 24 pages (including interior title page, copyright page, acknowledgements, etc) and so I used that number as well as the plot of the story to figure out how many illustrations I needed.
  • deadlines (~ 2 weeks)
  • royalties/rights, I would end up keeping 100% ownership of the content he would produce
  • final deliverables … all work had to be originally produced, respect the copyright of others, and he would have to deliver the final and work-in-process PSD/illustrator files

After I included a single line description of the illustration I wanted above each paragraph in my first draft, he began working on the project immediately.

The illustration process began as he started sending me sketches of each illustration I had described:

Early drafts of the first frame of Alex Masters SEO

Every night I would get roughly 5 sketches, I would give feedback, and he would implement the suggestions and send more by the end of the next day.

Some sketches of frames really evolved throughout this feedback process:

Original version
Final version

One lesson I learned in the development of this frame is that illustrations can be very, very tricky. What I meant to relay to the reader in the above frames was that after a rough week of SEO/Marketing brainstorming, both Alex and his dad were out of ideas.

In the earlier version, you’d think just by looking at the illustration that Alex and his dad both had had rough days on their own and were sharing in their sadness together on the living room couch. However, I quickly realized this was not the right approach and we needed to illustrate the idea of creative burnout in this frame, which you can see in the final version.

After we had agreed on the rough sketches, the illustrator began the process of inking each illustration and colouring them in, pretty soon I had a folder of images sent over to me … the book was coming to life!!!

After reviewing the coloured illustrations, I gave final approval and the illustrator began adding in additional details and shading in each image.

In the next step of the publishing process, I began to create the two PDF’s CreateSpace needed — one was the interior PDF (the actual book) and cover PDF (with the front, back cover, and spine).

I initially tried to do each page in the interior PDF in Adobe Photoshop (because I had a lot of experience with it) but quickly learned that managing the page number positioning, gutter, trim size, and updating text later would be a real hassle for so many pages in Photoshop.

Eventually, I picked up Adobe InDesign and prepared both PDF’s for submission to Createspace. Luckily, Createspace makes the whole process of setting up ISBN and choosing a trim size pretty straight forward. Once I had submitted my PDF’s to them, it took about a day for them to approve the book!

Challenges along the way

  • Publishing terminology like Trim Size and Gutter were new concepts for me but very confusing at first. The final cover.pdf file I submitted ended up looking like the image below, I had to manipulate the canvas size multiple times and use rulers in order to create it with the front/back covers and spine in mind. Turns out you have to calculate the spine width exactly based on the number of pages in the book.
  • I read on a thread on the CreateSpace forums that they had support for 8x10 (or really 10x8) landscape printing of books, but when I finally thought I was done, I had to redo both PDF’s and switch them to portrait size … which was a hassle to say the least. Turns out, Createspace did not support landscape printing of books in that size.
  • Setting up taxes/royalty information through Createspace was kind of a drag, but honestly, they have worked really hard to make it as painless as possible. You fill out a form and they register you to the IRS on your behalf … it was actually pretty slick.
  • After publishing on CreateSpace, I was disappointed to hear that it would take 2–3 weeks for my book to appear on the Amazon Store. Eventually, while submitting my book to Kindle, I learned Amazon now supports printing paperback as well. Eventually, through them, I was able to get both the Kindle and Paperback versions live on the store with a 24 hour period. 
    FYI, Amazon owns Createspace and I suspect they are folding Createspace into their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program. Next time, I plan to just start from KDP directly.
  • The greatest challenge of all in my case, was explaining SEO concepts like Backlinks and Pagerank to such a young audience in a way that was engaging to them. This book really is the first of its kind, so, it was difficult to find any kind of inspiration in this regard and I had to work from scratch to get it, “right”. I spent a lot of time making sure kids were able to understand the concepts being taught after reading the book and they had developed some appreciation for SEO + marketing.

Lessons Learned

  • One thing I definitely liked about writing a children’s book, as compared to working on app/website/open source project was truly the relief in completing it. I love making websites and think it is a phenomenal medium, but sometimes it can be a drag to publish a website and have to keep making updates/maintain and be chained to it for several years to come. The nice part about publishing a book as a medium is once you publish it, it’s done for good.
  • The concept of royalties for life — is a beautiful one and largely unheard of in the startup world. Way better than pitching VC’s, right?
  • I really felt my mind opened up as a part of this project. It was nice to think like a, “kid”, again where anything is truly possible and there is no pressure to connect the dots realistically.
  • Feedback is critical to story telling, I spoke to everyone I could to enhance the story line and illustrations and could feel the book get truly better each time
  • The illustrations and the story go hand-in-hand, don’t be shy to let the illustrations carry the weight of the story in some frames, even more so than the actual text.
  • Kids love easter eggs in each illustration— something as simple as a cat playing with a ball of yarn. Also, try to connect the elements in earlier frames with later ones.
  • Invest in a talented illustration partner and try to come up with an iconic look and feel to your work.
  • Spend a lot of time on tweaking the story, illustration, and invest deeply in character design.
  • Writing for kids is really, really difficult. Spend time getting inspiration first at the library and also spend time with kids to try to understand their psyche better.
  • Get the age group of your readers right and make sure the illustrations also appeal to that age group

Final thoughts

Altogether, the process of writing a Children’s book was exciting and opened my mind. It was really fun to work on something that wasn’t inside of sublime text and appealed to the childlike imagination within all of us.

Back Cover Illustration of Alex Masters SEO

If you’re interested in reading Alex Masters SEO and sharing with it a special kid in your life, consider picking up a copy in paperback or for Kindle today.

Help get the word out — media release available here.

Alex Masters SEO will be the first in a series, with many more books to come. Order a copy today!