Self-publishing a children’s book

Print-on-demand and other challenges

Last year two things in my life coincided which made me realise it was time to publish my children’s book. Firstly, on November 1st 2016 my son was born, a fabulous turning point in my life. One week later Trump was elected president of the US with a campaign promise to build a wall between the US and Mexico, and a strong opinion that climate change didn’t exist. So how do these two things relate?

Roll back about ten years, I was living in New York, spending my spare time writing a story for children called ‘Quibble and Hearty.’ It’s about a busy character called Quibble who becomes very selfish building his empire and uses up all the trees and water, creating havoc for the other animals. He then builds a wall around his palace to keep everyone else out. Thank goodness his best friend Hearty is determined to help him change his ways… It occurred to me that the story seemed like it had in fact been written for this moment in time.

Quibble chops down the trees and builds a maze.

I was now two months into my maternity leave, and brimming with ideas of things to make for my little boy. However it’s pretty to hard to get much done with a new baby, so I needed to focus. I decided I must pick one idea. Something I could do in the evenings whenever the baby slept, and when my partner was home and helping out. Of course Quibble and Hearty were already raring to go, they were the inevitable choice.

Self-publishing versus traditional publishing

Truth be told, I tried to publish my book through the usual routes when I first wrote it. I got an agent and she sent it out to all the lots of publishers in New York. In fact, I even met with a major publisher who said they wanted to publish it. But the deal never came through and in the end they backed out.

My experience of trying to get published was a long, timely, arduous process.
An illustration from version 2.

A couple of years later I rewrote the book, taking on all the publishers’ feedback I’d received. I simplified things, I made the story less scary, I followed a standard structure I’d read in other children’s books, and I tried again. But again, nothing materialised. A good friend read the two versions and told me she thought the first one was still far more original. ‘Quibble and Hearty’ sat on the shelf, but I swore that one day I’d get them into the world.

As the years passed, I found myself heading up design and user experience teams for some big digital brands; BBC, TES and now FutureLearn. My world became filled with questions about how learning happens online, and what the future of learning will look like in the digital space. Many big industries are being shaken up by the competition of digital products. For example, Uber has changed the way you can get a taxi, Airbnb has changed the way you find somewhere to stay, FutureLearn is changing the way we study, and self-publishing services are changing the way we make books.

I started to wonder if I could use a daisy-chain of digital products to get my book into the marketplace?

Suddenly this approach felt far more exciting and useful than trying to get a publisher interested. So, I decided to use the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, to raise the funds and create an audience.

I’ve written a separate article on my Kickstarter campaign here in case you’re interested in reading more about this.

It made sense to build upon my Twitter and Facebook profiles to promote my book, and I was pretty confident that I wanted Amazon with their huge global marketplace to sell and ship my book. But I had no idea which company would be the best to print the books, although I knew there were two different ways I could do this.

Offset or print-on-demand

Just in case you’re not familiar with these terms, simply put, print-on-demand is the process of printing a book when it is ordered, whilst offset is the process of printing a large number of books up front. There are pro’s and con’s to both options which I attempted to understand.

With offset printing you try to estimate how many people may purchase your book, and then print roughly the right number of copies. The cost per book is cheaper meaning the author or publisher are likely to make more money per sale. But you have to put a chunk of money up front to pay for the printing, plus you may end up with extra books you can’t sell, or run out of books if more people want them than expected.

With print-on-demand, there is very little up front cost, meaning you can publish your book without spending much money. Plus you avoid the challenge of trying to determine how much demand there will be for your book, as there is no limit to how many copies can be printed and sold. However, a greater percentage of the profit will end up in the pocket of the printers to cover their costs.

Being new to this market I really had no idea how many copies of the book I may sell, but fundamentally the decision really came down to the fact that I wanted to learn first hand about print-on-demand services.

I loved the idea that there would be no piles of left over books to discount. No trees cut down that didn’t need to be. No energy wasted in printing and distributing something nobody wanted.

The only concern that remained was around quality. I am a designer after all, and I like beautifully made and executed ideas. Before making the final decision I needed to print some prototypes to see what I’d be actually be getting, but first I had to decide on the print-on-demand provider to trial my work with.

I’d used Blurb in the past and had been impressed by their quality, plus the user experience of their site is lovely and makes me happy. However, sadly when I worked out their cost per unit, they came out much more expensive than the other options, so I had to rule them out. Amazon offer their own print-on-demand service called Create Space. From what I can understand this a great option if you want to primarily distribute your book through Amazon, in fact your book will even be printed and shipped faster this route. However, there are more challenges if you want any non-amazon outlets to be able to stock your book quickly and easily.

This is where Ingram Spark comes into the picture. Their distribution network claims to be the ‘world’s largest book distributor’ with thousands of independent bookshops, libraries and educational institutions ordering books from them on a regular basis. I particularly liked the idea that anyone could order my book from their local bookshop, or purchase it on Amazon if they chose to. So now I just needed to put Ingram Spark to the test.

Ingram Spark

Initially I had some struggles with the Ingram Spark interface, which isn’t great from a user experience standpoint, and even though I attempted to thoroughly read through their 28 page PDF user guide I still hit a couple of hurdles.

There was a point after I’d designed the whole book as a standard 32 page picture book when I discovered Ingram Spark require the last page of the book to be left totally blank for their own personal printing barcode (not the books ISBN code).

And then there was a proof I received that made all the darker colours in my book look rather grey. I learnt that their printing process limits the amount of ink applied to the page (if you know about this stuff they specify a 240% total ink limit, versus the standard 300%).

Dark blocks of colour didn’t look so great so I changed them.
There was lots of trial and error. I really had to learn their system and adjust my designs accordingly to get the best product.

But after a number of proofs back and forth, along with some very helpful customer support, I finally reached a point that I felt the quality of the book was looking good enough for my own demanding production standards.

I should also mention that one of the reasons I chose Ingram Spark is that they recently started offering a premium colour option with a different printing setup. Whilst this is more expensive than their standard colour option, it is far superior in every way, especially if you’re looking to print a full colour, full bleed, picture book.

Quality control

So I’d spent lots of time and energy reviewing proofs and making sure everything was just right, the copy, the colours, the crop. However, on one of my visits to a school to read my book to the kids, I happened to see the five paperbacks that had just arrived directly from the printers, and was horrified to discover that they were cropped incorrectly. Every page had a white border of about half a centimetre at the top. My heart sank as I imagined all the shipments to all my Kickstarter backers having the same error. It was at this moment that I realised one of the biggest challenges about print-on-demand…

You, the creator, will never get to check what your recipients actually receive.
Books with white borders on the top of every page.

The last proof I saw was perfect, I knew my files were all good, but somewhere in the process a mistake had been made.

I promptly got in touch with Ingram Spark and showed them photos of the error. They looked into the situation and kindly agreed to reprint any books with this problem, but they couldn’t say who of my 100+ Kickstarter backers had been sent a badly cropped book.

I contacted my backers on Kickstarter and let them know I could replace any books with white borders for free but only a few people got in touch. Hopefully this was because most copies of the book were fine, or it could be that people weren’t that worried about their books having a white border. But for me as the creator, I learnt the hard lesson that if you can’t see your own product first, you’ll never be 100% sure what your buyers receive.

ISBN numbers and information

I didn’t know anything about ISBN numbers when I started this project, and I found it hard to find one place that could answer all my questions. I didn’t even really know what an ISBN was – a number or a barcode?

I soon learnt that ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number which is a code used to provide specific information about a book, like the publisher, title or format to booksellers. Retailers rely on ISBN numbers for listing, ordering and controlling the stock of their books. And an ISBN number can easily be converted into a barcode, which can then be scanned to reveal the details of a book in the booksellers system.

You can get an ISBN in a few different ways, but I think it’s best to purchase your own ISBN numbers for the single reason that your book will then be listed as published by your publishing company. If you work with Amazons print-on-demand system, Create space, they will give you an ISBN number for free, but beware… your books will appear on their site as being published by them, plus if you want to sell your books elsewhere you can’t take that free ISBN number with you, meaning you could end up with multiple ISBN numbers for the same publication, making things very messy!

Every country has a different agency that sells ISBN numbers, in the U.K. its Nielsen, they come as a single number or a pack of ten. Keep in mind you need a separate ISBN for each format of your book, so in my case I needed one for the paperback and one for the hardback.

Unfortunately my experience using Nielsen’s online products was pretty confusing. There is one website to purchase your ISBN numbers from called nielsenisbnstore.com. One would assume after creating an account here, that you will be able to update the details on your ISBN numbers at the same place, but this is not the case. Instead you will need to create a new account at a totally different domain called nielsentitleeditor.com. After registering your details on this site, it takes 7–10 business days for the title editor service to supply you with a user name and password via email, with which you can actually input your title information. Once I’d finally received my new login details and inputted my book details I received a new email stating it would take a further 2–5 days for me to see my title information in the system. Wow! One has to wonder how businesses like this are still surviving today in our 24 hour, always-on digital world, unless I’m missing something? It’s no surprise to me now why people use Amazon’s free ISBN number, as it appears to be so quick and easy.

Sadly I had not anticipated it taking a full 3 weeks for my ISBN information to become available to booksellers. This was a huge mistake on my part as it meant that whilst my book was being made available by Ingram Spark to book retailers, many were not receiving enough data about my book for it to appear on their sites, or if the book was listed, some of the details like the description or the cover image were missing. The first few weeks after my book was published I anxiously browsed online booksellers looking for my book and dismaying at the messy incomplete descriptions.

This was also exactly the same time that all my Kickstarter backers were receiving their own copies of ‘Quibble and Hearty,’ so I really lost out on a marketing opportunity to tell everyone all the places they could purchase additional copies whilst they were thinking about it. For example on amazon.co.uk my book was listed, but it stated it could take an additional 1–2 months to ship. I doubt many people purchase anything these days that’s going to take that long to arrive in the post.

My big learning here was to input all my title information into Nielsen as soon as I possibly can, definitely well before the book has reached its publication date.

Making money

In my experience, it currently seems very hard to make a decent income through self-publishing unless you manage to sell huge quantities of books. As far as I can tell the printers and distributors seem to make most of the money from your book. Here’s how the figures broke down for me…

As a publisher I get to define my retail price, but if I want to compete in the children’s picture book market I need to try and charge the going rate for my books, which currently averages about £6.99 for a paperback and £12:99 for a hardback.

The booksellers (like Amazon) require the publisher to offer them a discount on the price of the book, this is their profit, 55% of the book price is fairly normal. If you go less than 55% some booksellers will choose not to stock your book, especially when you’re an unknown author. The print-on-demand service is a bit more expensive per book than printing lots of books up front, so their price for printing my hardback is £6.60. So, if I actually chose to sell the hardback book at the going rate of £12.99, then £6.60 would go to the printers, and then I would need to give the bookseller 55% of the book price, which comes out to be £7.14, meaning I would actually need to pay 75p for every book sold. I worked out the cheapest price I could sell my book for and break even, so make no money whatsoever, was £14.67. I chose to sell my book for £16.49, about £3.50 over the going rate, giving me 82p a book.

Now one of the reasons giving a 55% discount to the retailer is a good idea, is it gives them more room to play with the price of your book. I’ve discovered that when a retailer discounts your book they reduce their profit, but this does not affect the amount the author or publisher receives. So my hope is that the booksellers will actually discount my book, making the price more reasonable to potential buyers. So far, I’ve noticed that barnesandnobles.com are offering a 5% discount off the hardcover, but no discount on the paperback.

Many businesses still don’t see print-on-demand as a viable option.

For me, the process of self-publishing has been a steep learning curve. I’m more than happy that I’ve managed to publish a quality version of my book in print and it’s now available to purchase at many online bookshops all over the world.

However, I am left with a nagging feeling that there must be a way to make this all more profitable to me, the person writing the story, illustrating the book and taking on the responsibility of publishing it. I understand that publishers tend to receive a much larger cut of the sale on ebooks, so this is something I’ll need to explore further. But if you’ve heard of any other clever ways to improve the profit margin for the books creator, I’d be delighted to hear about them. In the meantime, why not buy my book ?

Find out more about the Kickstarter campaign I created to fund the publishing of my book in this blog post.