The adventures of a self-published Canadian kids’ book author: Feet on the ground, head in the clouds

By Susan Ross/ I am a self-published author with four titles under my belt and thousands of books in my basement (at the mercy of two cats) and in my printer’s warehouse. To date I’ve sold over 4,500 books (all four titles combined). Where did the money go? Oh right, I remember: the illustrator, printer, layout, bookmarks, business cards, website, etc. Now, however, I want to expand across the country and into the U.S. on a large scale. I just have to figure out how.

Writing was the easiest part. It took me years to refine each book (with the exception of Say Please to the Honeybees, which only took six months). Still I remained in total control and did not need to rely on anyone but myself. That, for me, made it “easy.”

It is important to mention that self-publishers still need objective opinions regarding their work. During the writing process, it is critical to get feedback.

I lost count of the number of drafts I did of each book. I would read it in classrooms and change the text according to the reactions and suggestions of the children and staff. It’s not enough to ask your friends and family to read your work. They are biased. You need to remain humble. You can’t expect everyone to like your work, but since you want it to sell, you do want most people who would normally be interested in your type of book to like it. If they don’t, forget it and start again.

I had to toss one book that I thought was hilarious. The kids thought it was mean. I kept the title, one idea, and scratched the rest. Live and learn. (It’s almost ready to go but first, as Kevin O’Leary would say, I need MONEY. I could go on Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank but they’d probably rip me to shreds. They tend to do that with authors.)

Getting an illustrator was much harder than I anticipated. It took me six months to find someone with my vision of my first main character, a sheep named Violet. Her name is Megan Stiver and she is an art student. We collaborated closely on the artwork in all four books. Generally we saw eye to eye but when you have two creative people working together it is inevitable that there will be disagreements and we were no exception to the rule. Through compromise and commitment we ended up with wonderful books. The Rose and the Lily, our most detailed book, is truly a work of art.

Next I needed to find a printer who could do the layout. (Megan didn’t know how to do this until the third book.) After comparing prices and people, I found Images (http://www.images.ca) in my city. (In an ideal world I would work solely with people living in my city because I can meet with them personally. Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world.) By the fourth book I found a printing company, Friesens (http://www.friesens.com ), who could supply me with hardcover books at a reasonable price. I did not want to have to deal with China. (Images still does lots of jobs for me, including my website http://www.susanross.ca)

To move toward the printing stage the basic requirements in Canada were:

  • an ISBN number for selling in stores: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/ciss-ssci/index-e.html
  • a CIP number for libraries: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/cip/index-e.html (After publication you will need to send two copies of your book to collectionscanada.)
  • a barcode for selling in stores- I hired someone to get these for me but there are sites where you can make your own.
  • copyrights – This is optional. Apparently once you write something it is automatically considered copyrighted. Naturally you need to put a copyright symbol and date in your book. However I decided to register the works. I suggest you not do this until you are ready to publish. I also think it’s better to register with the U.S. rather than Canada copyright office like I did because the Canadian office doesn’t request the actual book, just the title, which seems odd to me. The U.S. office requires the book. The Canadian link is http://www.cipo.ic.gc.ca . The U.S. link is http://www.copyright.gov .

Marketing is a challenge. I find direct selling fun and sell wherever I go (doctors’ offices, parking lots, trains – I have no shame). I do book fairs, craft shows, anything and everything. I cannot give you advice on advertising and marketing on a large scale since I don’t feel equipped to do so. As soon as I’ve figured out the best way to go about this I will let you know. Twitter, Facebook and blogging are all important tools that I know I am not using to their fullest. You must have business cards and a website. You will never get known without them. The one ad I put in a magazine ($300+) got me nothing. I’m told you have to advertise repeatedly to get people to “see” it but I don’t have that kind of money. I have been written up several times in our local papers; a good start. I am starting to find reviewers (not an easy thing to do but I have found Twitter very helpful in this regard) and now have some great reviews. I want more. I will then start e-mailing libraries and bookstores but frankly the shipping aspect is quite overwhelming to me unless they purchase through Lightning Source (see next paragraph). Lightning Source is producing paperbacks. I can offer two of my books directly from me as hardcover and library bound from Friesens. Distribution is the main reason I would like a publisher. Less work for me. Stay tuned. Hopefully I will acquire some brilliant advice on marketing and advertising your book.

You may ask why I have not gotten a distributor on my own to help me get the books out on mass. I’ve tried, but when I read the fine print it looks to me like I am in jeopardy of losing money, not making it, what with shipping and returns. (Why do I pay for shipping and returns? Why do publishers allow returns? Apparently no other industry does that. If stores have extra stock they discount it and sell it.) I am not ready to take that chance. So, as a compromise to myself, I am using Lightning Source (http://www.lightningsource.com), a POD (print-on-demand) company, to get my book “out there”. For the price of Images doing the formatting and a fee of about $100 for Lightning Source, my books get on to all sorts of websites including Amazon. (I stipulated NO returns since it’s POD.) Even if I don’t make millions, I won’t lose them either.

The pros to self-publishing:

  • being able to pick your illustrator. If you go with a traditional publisher they pick the illustrator and you have no input into the illustrations. Illustrations are critical to a children’s picture book and I had a definite vision of what I wanted.
  • having control over the length and content of the story. One traditionally published author told me he had to fight with the publisher over the length of the book (they wanted it cut by more than half) and the sex of the main character of his second book. He wrote the character in as a girl and they wanted him to change it to a boy because they said it would sell to a wider audience. They won. He was not a happy camper.
  • the book will be available as soon as you get it ready instead of having to wait months or years to find a publisher and more months or years for them to actually publish the book.

The cons were having to research the steps towards publishing (you’re welcome), find the illustrator and printer, acquire the necessary items listed above by myself or hire someone to do so for me, store the books, do the bookkeeping (aaaahhhh!!!!), keep track of the inventory (harder than it seems), etc. I also needed to shell out a ton of money.

I hope you have found this article helpful. I forgot my best and most economical marketing tip. I put my logo and my website on our household’s one and only car. I suggest you do this in secret. Let is be a big surprise for your spouse. Mine was certainly thrilled to have a sheep with it’s bellybutton showing on both front doors (LOL).

Susan (Herman) Ross is a former teacher. She lives in London, Ontario in Canada. She has a house full of animals and a married daughter named Rachel. She has self-published four titles: The Great Bellybutton Cover-up, Say Please to the Honeybees, The Kit Kat Caper and The Rose and the Lily. All her books have a poem and a craft at the end of the book. Susan does author visits in Ontario. She is considering doing author visits by Skype but technology scares her. Perhaps one day… www.susanross.ca


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