Picture Book Snob
What to consider before self-publishing a picture book
Before independently publishing your picture book, ask yourself the following questions
Is your book really a picture book?
A book with pictures isn’t automatically a picture book. Images that merely mirror a text aren’t enough; there has to be a more intricate relationship between the narrative and the illustrations. In a picture book, the words and the images don’t just co-exist; they combine to create an effect greater than the sum of their parts. Accomplished picture book authors allow room for the illustrator to add to the story, and they both leave space for the imaginations of their readers. It’s not as simple as putting words and pictures side by side.
Have you done enough research?
Independent authors often say they’ve written something because there was nothing else like it available, despite many acclaimed books addressing the same themes already existing. It can be blatantly obvious that some self-published authors aren’t familiar enough with the current market. Make sure you know what’s being published now and what’s being recommended by literacy organisations and experts.
Don’t just concentrate on libraries, go to bookshops too, and don’t focus solely on the classics. Although they are important, you need to know what’s popular now if you want to appeal to contemporary children and the people who buy their books. Look up bestseller lists and find out what has recently received an award.
Read hundreds or even thousands of picture books; you’ll never be able to write a good one if you don’t read as many as you can first. Examine the covers as well as the contents and pay attention to their dimensions. If your book is too large or too small, it either won’t sit properly or will get lost on bookshop shelves. And consider giving it a spine — it will look much better.
Who are you writing for?
Are you writing this book for yourself, because you will find it rewarding in some way? Or do you hope to entertain, inspire or enrich the lives of young readers? Will the story be of interest to anyone outside your family or circle of friends? Would you have wanted to read this book when you were younger? And, just as importantly, will it interest today’s children, or is it more suited to past generations? Unless you’re writing with contemporary children in mind, about something relevant to them, your book is unlikely to sell beyond your acquaintances or relatives.
Is there an actual story?
Does your book have a discernible plot with characters that evolve and grow as it develops? Is there a problem that is resolved by the end? Or are you just trying to communicate an idea or instruct children in some way? Self-published books frequently lack a compelling plot, focusing instead on a theme or an issue about which the author hopes to impart wisdom. Children don’t want a lecture; they want a story. The best picture books will have a little lesson hidden in there somewhere, but it has to be subtle.
Are your illustrations good enough?
Whether you’ve chosen to illustrate a book yourself or you’ve found someone to do it for you, the artwork is crucial. Picture books are often chosen on the basis of their illustrations, and some would argue that they’re more important to get right than the text. A lacklustre story can sometimes be saved by interesting images, but I can’t enjoy a picture book if the artwork is bad.
It doesn’t matter how well-written a text is if the images are not inviting; if they’re unpleasant, they make the book unappealing too. The illustrations can’t just be an afterthought, they’re often what persuades people to pick up the book in the first place. No one can assess a text at a glance, but they can get an idea of the illustrations from the book’s cover alone. So many self-published picture books have practically identical, flat, soulless illustrations that look mass-produced. I can’t stress highly enough how important it is to have artwork that brings your story to life and makes your book stand out for the right reasons. Is the title tempting?
Independently published picture books often have names that are far too long and attempt to summarise the whole story. Rambling, complicated titles are off-putting and suggest that the contents of the book will be similar. If you’re selling your book online, the title and the cover are your best tools to hook a potential customer. When deciding what to call your book, you don’t need to describe exactly what the story is about or include every element of the plot. You do need something catchy that connects with your audience on an emotional level, sparks their curiosity, or makes them laugh. Look at bestselling contemporary picture books for examples of what you should be aiming for, and if you’re still stuck, hire a professional editor or copywriter.
Is your word count too high?
Traditionally published picture books are typically 1,000 words or less, with most falling between 500–600 words. Don’t think that just because you’re not taking the traditional route, you can take liberties with your word count. If there is too much text on a page, children will get impatient and want to turn to the next one before it has been read. Remember too that it’s grown-ups who buy and read picture books, and they’re generally read in the evening when even the adults are tired. If a picture book has too much text, I won’t purchase it. If we’re gifted a very long story, I won’t reach for it at bedtime.
Is your price competitive?
An enormous barrier to sales of self-published books is that they tend to be more expensive than those by established writers. If a book by an unknown author costs twice or three times as much as one by a household name, which do you think is more likely to be purchased? Independently published books released in paperback are often the same price as traditionally published hardbacks. I rarely buy hardback editions, even if they’re by my favourite authors or illustrators; I’ll usually wait for the paperback. Avoid a hardback format if possible; look at what traditional publishers charge for their paperbacks and set your price accordingly.
Have you had your book professionally edited or proofread?
It’s practically impossible to spot mistakes in your own work, and friends and relatives aren’t going to be able to catch everything unless qualified to do so. I’ve seen self-published books with grammatical errors in their titles, which could put a potential customer, bookseller or librarian off immediately. To give your book the best chance for success, you need to get it professionally proofread as a minimum. An editor can also provide feedback on structure, assess voice and tone consistency, identify weak points and suggest rewrites, as well as correct mistakes.
Do you have a marketing plan?
Writing and publishing is only half the battle; you need to set aside enough time to adequately promote your book. You’ll be competing with traditionally published titles that have enormous publicity teams behind them. It’s worth engaging the services of a professional consultant, preferably one familiar with the children’s book market, to help you devise and implement an effective strategy.
Best of luck with your self-publishing journey. Writing picture books is a complex process, and a skill that’s difficult to master, but when it works, it’s magic!
This post was originally published on my professional website, Purple Crayon, where I provide copywriting, editing and PR services. Find Purple Crayon on Instagram and Facebook as @purplecrayoncreative and on Twitter as @crayontweeting for more writing advice.