Writing for children can be one of the most rewarding things to publish – but it can also be one of the most challenging.
In today's article, Darcy Pattison gives some tips for successfully self-publishing a children's picture book.
At some point, many successful writers want to try writing and publishing a children’s picture book. There are many reasons: their own children inspire a story, they fondly remember a childhood event, or their muse gives them a story that doesn’t seem right for their usual genre.
Writers often tell themselves that they are professionals and can switch to this new genre without problems. There are indeed many similarities to publishing a children’s book. Let’s cover them.
How Children’s Books are Similar to Publishing for Adults
The most common advice given to those writing for adults are these:
- write a compelling story
- get amazing cover art
- know your audience
- market as much as possible.
Children’s books are the same.
Write a Compelling Story
Just as for any genre, for children’s books you should focus on the story first. The problem is that picture books have a specific format.
They are almost always 32 pages. This is because paper folds neatly into groups of 8, and the 32-page picture book can be printed on a single sheet of paper. Originally, the economics of printing set the format, but putting a story into the 32-page format has become an art.
Today, that format can be modified for ebooks or print-on-demand, but the stories still work best in the 32-page format.
Children’s stories are usually 500 words or less. In that space, the story sets up a problem and a character, puts obstacles in the character’s way, and finally solves the problem.
If you take the 32 pages and lay it out in a book, there are about 14 double-page spreads, which means the images spread across the opened page. Divide your story into fourteen sections.
Each section must:
- Advance the story. If you remove this section it should destroy the story. Each section must be integral to the story. Something must happen that changes the story in some way.
- Give the illustrators something to illustrate. Think action. Include action verbs that inspire amazing art from the illustrators. Variety of illustrations is important so be sure the story moves to different locations.
- Make the reader want to turn the page. The story should pull the reader through the story.
After the story is written and each section works, think short. When I critique picture book manuscripts, I usually ask the author to cut the story in half. And then remove another 100 words. Picture books, like poetry, require very tight writing.
Adult books demand amazing cover art that are genre appropriate. Likewise, children’s books need great cover art; but they also need great art on each of the 32 pages. This is, of course, one of the main differences between children’s books and other genres.
However, if you don’t have a good eye for art, you’ll need to find a fantastic artist who can also do the graphic design/typography, preferably one with experience in children’s books. That means you’ll look for portfolios that show a full picture book and be ready to pay more.
This is one place that those new to the genre fall short. A common pitfall is to think the art must be cartoonish. Far from it! The range of art in successful picture books is truly amazing. For example, take a look at the New York Times list of Best Illustrated Picture Books of 2017.
Look for similar lists of “best illustrated picture books” and you’ll find immense variety. In other words, choose art that appeals to you and will enhance the story you’re telling. Don’t settle for mediocre art because it will handicap your sales.
Because I’m fairly confident in giving art direction, I find illustrators on Behance.net, which is Adobe’s social media platform for illustrators.
Be careful: many types of illustrators post here, not just children’s book artists. You should have specifications sheet ready when you approach the illustrator. Click here for more on dealing with illustrators, including a sample spec sheet.
Know Your Audience
Take the time to study the dual audience of children and adults for picture books. While you must appeal to the child, you must also catch the adult’s attention because they’ll be paying for the book.
Study the children’s book categories on Amazon, look at award-winning lists, and take a careful look around before you invest in a children’s book. It’s a hard market and has nuances different from books for adults; take the time to study the market just as you would for any other book.
Competition is much stiffer for certain topics such as bedtime stories. If you choose to write a bedtime story, then study the market and make sure yours stands out. Click here for 10 picture book topics to avoid because of fierce competition.
Market as Much as Possible
One big difference in publishing a book for children is that it’s harder to make money because it’s a smaller audience, and you need to adjust your expectations accordingly. Like any book these days, though, smart marketing will help your story sell better.
The audience for children’s picture books is a moving target because as children grow up, their book preferences mature. That makes it difficult to develop a strong audience ties through email lists.
If you focus on educators, instead of parents, email marketing becomes more stable; but the education market has its own challenges because educators need books that tie into the curriculum.
I focus more on educators, and make sure that each book hits a curriculum need. For example, The Nantucket Sea Monster: A Fake News Story was named a National Council for Teachers of English 2018 Notable Children’s Book in Language Arts. (NCTE 2018 NCBLA). The nod from English teachers will help the story sell better to classroom teachers.
I also use AMS (Amazon Marketing Service) and found that it doubled my income.
It’s strange though because you’ll advertise the ebook and find that that paperback will sell instead because many parents still prefer a print book for kids.
Either way, it’s a sale though, so the platform does work. Just be sure to put up both ebooks and paperback versions of your story.
Also try Pinterest because there’s a strong audience of parents and teachers on that platform. I find that about 20% of my website traffic comes from Pinterest. As with any marketing platform, study the best practices and take the time to let your efforts grow your audience.
One Big Caution
If you plan to sell ebooks of your picture book, and you should, there’s one big caution: Amazon Kindle download fees can kill your profit.
Children’s picture book file sizes can be bloated because of the illustrations. If your files are over 7MB, you should opt for the 35% royalty, which doesn’t charge download fees.
I’ve written a long tutorial on how to reduce the files to a more reasonable and profitable 2-3 MB. Basically, reduce the image quality to medium, limit files to 1000 px wide, and strip out extra metadata. Click here for the full tutorial.
If you have reasonable expectations and follow best practices—great story, stunning art, consideration of audience, and marketing—you can successfully publish a children’s picture book.
It’s not that different from publishing books for adults except you need a great eye for art. Keep your expectations realistic: because the art costs more for a picture book, you have more invested, so it’s harder to earn back your investment. Slower sales make it even harder. But it can and does work for many children’s book authors. Good luck!
Have you ever considered writing and self-publishing a children's picture book? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Darcy Pattison writes about writing and publishing at DarcyPattison.com. Here are some relevant articles.
For more on writing great stories for kids see my online course, How to Write a Children's Picture Book.