Note: My non-fiction book How to Self-publish and Market a Children’s Book (Second Edition) is out in print and as an eBook Whether you’re just starting out with self-publishing or are part way through your journey this comprehensive resource provides practical guidance for planning and creating picture books, chapter books or middle grade novels and (crucially) tried and tested strategies for selling more books through author visits to schools, other events, local bookshops and online through advertising and social media marketing. Find out more and about what’s inside this new edition for May 2021 here.
In 2013 I self-published Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep a 32-page rhyming colour picture book for children aged 3-6. It’s one of six rhyming stories that make up The Adventures of Ferdinand Fox.
Along with my other books, Ferdinand had sat in a box for over 10 years while I went back to the day job after failing to find an agent or publisher. In Ferdinand’s case I was told that rhyming texts were a non-starter (especially from an unknown author) because they can’t be translated. The background here is that colour picture books are generally printed in more than one language at the same time – called co-editions – to help justify the print runs and so bring down the unit print cost which is so much higher than for black and white interior printing.
Not being one to give up easily on books I believe in*, I decided to give Ferdinand a go . Read on to find out what I learned, how I might do things differently next time around, and why!
*The Secret Lake and Eeek! The Runaway Alien were turned down soon after Ferdinand – but at at the time of writing (updated May 2019) The Secret Lake is a best seller on Amazon UK (over 30,000 copies sold in print and over 7,000 on Kindle since publication in August 2011 and foreign rights sold to Albania and Russia, and Eeek! has sold over 3,000 print copies. I’ve also now sold close to 1,000 copies of Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep – almost all at school events or signings and over 2,000 of my follow-on picture book (75% online), Ferdinand Fox and the Hedgehog
Picture book publishing basics – what I’ve learned
Below I look at the practicalities of self-publishing a picture book. If you’re looking for creative guidance skip down to the end of the page for links.
1. Picture book page and word count
Most picture books are 32 pages and 500-1,000 words long. (Word count can of course vary from very few right up to 1,000 – but the golden rule is generally less is best.) The second most common page count is 24 pages. If these lengths don’t suit your story, then any multiple of four will work but bear in mind that 24- and 32-page books are tried and tested and will sit comfortably alongside the competition in a bookshops.
For planning purposes, these page count numbers exclude the back and front cover (and the insides of each of these which are made from the same sheet) but need to include extra pages such as title page, dedication and so on – this is important to understand when mapping out your story as it means you probably have only 24 -28 pages to play with for a 32-page picture book, depending on how you want to use your end pages. (I got this wrong first time around!)
2. Picture book storyboarding
This is working out on one piece of paper how your story – the pictures and the words – will flow through the book. A storyboard is an essential first planning step before going on to make up a full size dummy. It gives you a birds’ eye view of where your text and illustrations will sit and makes it easy to see what is and isn’t working. Because you are working at a high level it’s also relatively quick to make changes, using revised storyboards if necessary. This is much more sensible than to trying to work with a full mock-up at the outset, no matter how sure you think you are of your story flow! (Another mistake I made!)
You can find any number of downloadable templates by searching on Google. Or you can download my 32-page colour picturebook storyboard template here.
Practical tips for storyboarding your children’s picture book
(This tips are based on my personal experience. I am not an illustrator, but I briefed my artist quite closely on all required pictures as I had a strong sense of what I wanted – we work well together this way!)
Tip 1: Before starting, take a look at the competition
I borrowed a lot of picture books from the local library and rummaged around in the loft for old favourites we’ve kept, such as Hairy Maclary. I was interested to study not just how the publishers had placed and interwoven the text and illustrations, but also to see how they had used their front and back matter pages (title page, half title, about the author etc). What’s acceptable, such as inclusion of illustrations with copyright info, and the sequence in which the title page appears seems to be pretty flexible! I have a fun double page collage spread at the start of Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep – it features a lot of the food we later see Ferdinand dreaming about, offering additional discussion and learning opportunities. I got the idea for this from some of the books I looked at.
Tip 2 : Be ready to compromise!
Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep is 436 words long and made up of 13 sets of four-line rhyming verse. I had a reasonably clear idea of what pictures would go with which text as they had always played naturally in my head. However, because I wanted to make my book fit the traditional 32-page model, when I came to do the storyboard I had to cut planned pictures in some places (no room!) and include unplanned pictures in other places (to avoid a text-only page).
I also had to change my ‘master plan’! I had initially envisaged text on the left-hand page and an image on the right-hand page throughout – as with Hairy Maclary. However, it soon became clear that this wouldn’t work all the way through – not just because of page-count restrictions, but also because the varying pace of the story demanded more frequent pictures in some places than in others. Having the high level storyboard was a must for solving these challenges.
Tip 3: Put yourself in your reader’s shoes
To ensure that you end up with an engaging spread of images and words put yourself in the reader’s shoes (parent/adult and child) and constantly ask yourself:
- ‘Is the variety and mix of illustrations/words from one page to the next sufficient to keep readers – and watchers – engaged?’
- ‘Do all pages offer opportunities for questions, discussion, thought, laughter, pointing and/or learning?’
- ‘Is the story progressing at an acceptable pace visually and/or through the words?’ (This doesn’t mean it needs to be a fast pace, of course – that will depend on the story!)
We all know which books we read to our children that we enjoyed and returned to again and again – and I can certainly remember some that I found boring! Keep these common-sense questions in mind when planning your storyboard. They will help you know when it’s right!
Tip 4: Make use of colour coding
On a first run with your storyboard, perhaps use a coloured cross or blob to indicate where you feel that an illustration is needed – be that on the same page as the text or on a facing page. You could also vary the size of your blobs or crosses to indicate the nature and size of each illustration (small, medium, large, close-up shot/full scene etc). I am no artist but I certainly found this approach came naturally and gave me an immediate sense of the book’s visual balance.
Once you’re happy that the mix feels right and the text will fit, create a second version where you either sketch the image crudely, or (if , like me, you’re not an illustrator!) use colour text to describe the image needed. I’ve typed out the storyboard below to make it easy to read here – but of course you actually do this by hand. This board shows how the book finally turned out
3. Creating a dummy / mock-up
Once you are 99% certain that you have your story mapped correctly, mock it up with A4 paper cut to the page size you will be using (read more on page size below). This will enable you to leaf through the book and get the real ‘reader experience’ – and gives you a last chance to be absolutely sure that the pace of the story and mix of illustrations feels right. If it doesn’t you may need to return to your storyboard – or you may be able to make minor adjustments on your mock-up.
Tip: Once you have your images files you can also mock a dummy up on-screen in Word and then reduce the view to 10% to give you the same birds’ eye view as the story board. I did this as a final step before sending the file for layout by my formatter. See below for how it looked. The red marks are instructions I had included for him with the file.
NB The double page spreads below are not displaying as they would for reading because the first page you see is actually a right hand page – but you can fudge this for your own use, which I did from recollection!
4. Picture book paper size
The paper size options available to you will depend on how you intend printing and distributing your book. If planning to use one of the main print-on-demand and distribution services, such as CreateSpace, Lightning Source or Lulu, check to see what paper size they offer and then compare that with equivalent books to your own in your local library or bookshop. Aim to go for the same size or similar (unless, of course, you want your book to stand out by being different!). You can then price accordingly and work out your RRP.
However – before steaming ahead – decide what interior paper quality you want and can afford! The main print-on-demand options are convenient and will take care of distribution, but four-colour books don’t come cheap using this method and the finish means they may not be suitable for your children’s picture book. Read on to find out why….
Update May 2018: while the information below about silk paper finish is all still valid, in the last couple of years as my early stock of 500 ran out I have moved to using print on demand for my school stocks as customers really didn’t notice the difference. This allows me to order in lower numbers at a time.
5. Interior paper finish using print on demand
The hardest lesson I learned from producing Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep is that I couldn’t get a silk finish interior paper finish from CreateSpace or Lightning Source. This is the slightly heavier, sticky-finger-proof paper used in most children’s books – yet neither services supplies them.
My reading of their product specs made me think this was a given – but it was my mistake and it threw my pricing and distribution plans into disarray at the last minute. This is crucial to understand if you intend trying to place your book into children’s bricks and mortar bookshops because 90% of picture books (in the UK at least) have these thicker silky pages.
This is not to say that you’ll get a poor quality product from CreateSpace or Lightning Source – you won’t. If you choose white paper it is smart and looks and feels very good (almost silky!) – and the quality of interior colour is excellent from both. (I opted for Lightning Source’s Premium Colour option, though there is a cheaper one available.) Nevertheless my heart sank when I opened my proof copies because I had expected silk paper.
Talking with parents/friends and even our local librarian they all said they couldn’t understand why I would think about ordering books upfront just to improve the interior paper finish, as they hadn’t noticed anything ‘wrong’ with my proofs. You probably can’t either looking at the picture above. On that basis I think that if you only intend selling direct from Amazon the quality is absolutely fine – and I am selling this version through them. (I checked with Nielsen who said that I didn’t have to use a different ISBN just because the paper finish was slightly different.) But if you want to try to persuade wholesalers to stock your book – to give you quick access to bookshops nationwide – you are likely to have difficulty due to the finish, especially as an unknown author.
This said, provided you have a great book, your local bookshops may well take the matt format on consignment and you can still sell it directly via Amazon and other online stores.
At the time of wrting, Lulu did supply silk finish paper – but only for book sizes 12” x 12” or 12.75” x 10.75” which are not typical for children’s books. Also this size / finish of books is not eligible for distribution via Lulu.
6. Print on demand costs for colour picture books
Be aware that the unit cost of print on demand colour picture books is high – despite the ‘non-silk’ interior paper quality. For example, the unit cost for printing a copy of Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep on demand is £3.21! As I normally offer a 45% discount through Lightning Source – in order to increase the chances of online stores discounting my books – that leaves me with a profit of just 60p per sale on Amazon sales, against £1.37 per sale on my other print books. This is liveable with, though not ideal! But I was still keen to find a way to produce a silk finish version to supply through wholesalers. In so doing, my aim was to try to match the print on demand price with the shortest print run I could find.
7. Traditional print cost quotes
I used to buy in print many years go and was therefore not surprised (but still horrified!) to learn that in order to bring my unit print costs close to the print on demand cost of £3.21, I would need to spend at least £1,500 and order in a stock of 500 books. Or I could reduce the unit cost further by paying around £1,900 for £1,000 copies. (With traditional offset printing, the higher the print run the cheaper the unit cost and vice versa, due to the print set-up costs.) Ordering in 1,000 copies would clearly make more economic sense, but without any sense of how well the book would be received, nor any sales force or national PR campaign behind me to drive custom, this was not a risk that I wanted to take – neither was spending £1,500 on the initial shorter run!
8. My compromise –short digital print runs
Luckily I was able find a UK print firm* that could supply me in runs of 100 off their digital press – working out at £3.91 a book including delivery. Yes that unit cost was high, and this meant I had to order up front – laying out £391 – but it meant I could test the silk finish version with local bookshops, at school events and via my wholesaler without ordering in huge numbers at considerable expense.
The initial response to the book was extremely positive and owing to new events coming up I ended up ordering a further 100. I then unexpectedly had a further booking and at that point bit the bullet and ordered 300 to help reduce the unit cost and give me some longer-term stock. This brought my total print run to 500 books, giving me an average unit cost of £3.35 including delivery**. With a retail price of £6.99 my silk finish versions still make a reasonable return of £3.64 at school events (or £2.64 if I offer a £1 discount) as there is no distributor cut taken. And I still make money from consignment sales with local bookshops where I tend to offer 35% discount. However, where I don’t make any money (my accountant now needs to close his eyes!) is through my wholesale sales via Gardners, whom I supply direct on a 50% discount agreement. (Believe it or not, this is good discount for a self-publisher by today’s standards – they only agreed to it on the back of my historic sales of The Secret Lake and Eeek! The Runaway Alien.)
Gardners understandably advised me to market the book at £7.99 instead of its current £6.99 price. However, I didn’t feel I could justify this – especially alongside so many picture books by well-known authors at a lower price point. I therefore settled for the £6.99 on the basis that my main profits from sales will be made through school events and local consignment sales. In the meantime, having the book in stock at Gardners – who are listed on Nielsen as my main distributor – means that most UK bookshops and online stores (WH Smith’s, Waterstones etc) can order it in easily and quickly, offering more chances to test it in the market. This strategy has already assured Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep a listing on the respected LoveReading4KidsUK website – where it was selected by Julia Eccleshare, Children’s editor at The Guardian, as one of July 2013’s featured books.*(Sadly I recently learned that the company I used for my short runs went out of business in 2017. I would recommend getting three quotes from print firms if you’re looking at this route – quotes and services change over time, but the quality I received was very good .) **Of course, had I known upfront that I was going to be ordering 500 books overall I could have saved money by ordering in one go – going for the cheaper offset price for 500. But with no track record in picture books, and knowing that volume sales for them are notoriously low, I wasn’t prepared to take the risk. I still have just under 100 left – but I have more events lined up and know that I will get through them all eventually. Crucially, my cashflow meant that I could also afford the cost – I was in a lucky position in that respect. I would not have taken the risk to order so many had that not been the case. Nor would I have done so if I didn’t have two other children’s books aimed at different age groups that I can take to school and Waterstones events alongside Ferdinand Fox, to make those events more cost-effective in terms of time.
9. My long-term marketing and distribution strategy for Ferdinand
My test marketing of Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep has gone far better than I dared hope and I’ve sold around 150 copies at the time of writing – half through Waterstones events and most of the rest through school events in May/June and or local bookshops on consignment. At both the Waterstones signings and the school events the feedback has been brilliant – children, teachers and parents love the rhyming text! And most children have seen urban foxes so are keen to try to make up their own stories!
I’ve also sold a small number online. The online reviews (some from a Goodreads giveaway) have been fantastic (and all but one of these were from the non-silk finish version supplied through Amazon) – including another 5 Stars from Louise Jordan, the ex-head Reader at Puffin UK and founder of The Writers’ Advice Centre for Children’s Books.
Should sales /orders take off in any large numbers as the book becomes more well-known through school events and my own PR, then I will consider ordering in a much larger print run using the offset method to bring down the unit cost and only supplying this finish – or approaching a partnership company such as Matador, to work with. But for now it’s wait and see, live and learn! I am also under no illusion that picture books don’t ever sell in very large numbers! I have more school events planned for the autumn and will be doing more publicity then too, so will then make decisions from there.
10. Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep Colouring Book – another way!
We indie authors are known for our resourcefulness, and as I pondered my lessons learned from this project, I had the idea to produce a colouring book version of Ferdiannd Fox’s Big Sleep. This uses standard black and white matt interior pages, so can be produced using print on demand at a much lower unit cost than the four-colour book.
Here readers get two for the price of one – a rhyming story and an activity book! My hope is that over time this will produce a further income stream, to help justify the cost of the project to date. Luckily my illustrator works directly in MS Paint, which meant it was very easy for him to resupply the images to me in black and white outline only. Also the format of the book, with text and pictures sitting separately from one another, lends itself to a colouring book format. To keep costs to a minimum I made no changes to the layout, and simply tweaked the cover text and back page blurb.
I now offer Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep Colouring Book via Lightning Source at a RRP of £4.99 – and at the time of writing this was discounted to £4.93 on Amazon, probably thanks to my 45% discount. I make £1.08 per sale with the distribution taken care of for me. I also offer it via CreateSpace in the USA.
I have yet to market this version actively as I want to give the full colour version more of an airing first – but my local bookshops and local Waterstones who stock all of my other books have said they will stock it, and I will supply direct for this. I may also look at packaging them together at a special price. All on my ‘to do’ list!
Would I print up-front using silk finish paper again?
I have five more Ferdinand Fox Stories and my jury is still out on how I will produce the remaining ones. Provided I book in regular school visits I have no doubt that I can sell my current stock. And since I also include The Secret Lake and Eeek! The Runaway Alien in my school visits (seeing several year groups at a time) it is an effective use of my time. However, I’ll make a final decision on what format to use for the other fox stories sometime next year once I see how the current book fares.
As I see it, I have three options:
- Continue with short digital runs and selling mainly via events.
- Supply the book in another format altogether – possibly running several stories together – and use non-silk paper/print on demand.
- Only produce colouring books!
- Only produce an audio book!
I’m just not sure which of the above I’ll do– so watch this space!
If you’re planning a children’s picture book I wish you every success – and please do feel free to leave comments and tips below for everyone’s benefit! I’m sure we’d all love to know of low-cost short-run four-colour print options!
Picture book writing tips – a few useful links
- The making of a picture book by Stephen Davies
- Joyce Dunbar’s guide to writing picture books
- 10 Picture book writing tips from Tania McCartney
Original post August 2013
Latest updates May 2018