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How can you write a book that children will love? How can you reach schools and libraries with your books? What might you be leaving on the table in terms of revenue in your author business? Daniel Miller shares his tips, and we also discuss the potential opportunities in his business model.
In the intro, I talk about London Book Fair 2022, petition against Amazon's ebook return policy [Change.org], Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives, and Other Introverts.
Plus, want to win 14 crime/thriller/mystery novels? Enter the Easter giveaway (8-18 April 2022)
Today's show is sponsored by IngramSpark, who I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 39,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries and more. It's your content – do more with it through IngramSpark.com.
Daniel Jude Miller is the author and illustrator of seven children's books.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- From illustration to writing
- Tips for authors who want to work with an illustrator
- Why publishing independently is worth the ‘necessary evil' of the business side in order to retain creative control
- Print runs vs print-on-demand for illustrated books — and are you leaving money on the table?
- Selling children’s books direct through classroom visits, and on an author website
You can find Daniel Miller at djudemiller.com and on Twitter @djudemiller
Transcript of Interview with Daniel Miller
Joanna: Daniel Jude Miller is the author and illustrator of seven children's books. Welcome to the show, Daniel.
Daniel: Hello, and thank you for having me.
Joanna: I'm excited to talk to you today.
Tell us a little bit more about you, and how you got into writing books for children.
Daniel: Well, that's an interesting story because I did not want to write books for children. In fact, I didn't want to write books for anyone. I actually started out as an illustrator.
I was the kid that was drawing in school, I was the one who went to a special art high school, I went to art college, and I only wanted to be an illustrator. I had no plans on writing. I never actually even tried.
Growing up, when I was in school, it wasn't really a thing that they focused on, so I never even attempted it. When I was about 25, I got an idea for a story, and I had a problem because I had two choices, either I was going to let somebody else write it and just do the illustrations for my own idea, or I'd have to actually learn how to write.
So, I only decided to write and only started writing when I was 25 years old, and I had already spent almost 20 years being an artist.
Joanna: Wait. Sorry. That doesn't make sense. You were 25 when you decided to be a…
Daniel: To start writing. Yeah. That was literally the first time I ever sat down to write, but I had been drawing since I was literally five years old.
Joanna: Oh, okay. I thought you meant you had a 20-year career in illustration.
Daniel: No. I was the person who was obsessed with art, and that was my only goal. Kids asked me all the time, if I wasn't an artist, what would I be? I have no idea, because I don't know how to fix a car, I don't know how to swing a hammer, I can't cook to save my life.
I had one goal and one goal only, and that was to be an artist, and it worked. The writing part was not part of the plan. That came accidentally. And surprisingly, it's actually now the part I slightly enjoy more.
Joanna: That's interesting. So, you had this first idea for a story, and clearly, you decided to learn to write, but how did you go about that?
How did you go about developing a new craft? Did you do degree courses, or did you just write, or how did you do it?
Daniel: I wish I would've taken some courses. That probably would've been a better idea. I decided to just do it, and it took almost 15 years to finish the first actual book, because I also decided, maybe foolishly, but it was more like a challenge, to write my first book in rhyme.
It was a very long book. It wasn't like cat and hat-type rhymes. It was going to be very complicated. That's probably not the best thing to train yourself on, but ultimately, it worked. It just took a really, really long time.
From that moment when I had the idea for my first book to when that book was actually physically in my hands, was 15 years. And that was a lot of reading other books. That was a lot of just going over it.
There must have been easily 100 drafts, because normally, there's a lot of drafts, but when you're learning how to write, there's even more. And so, it was just a long, long process.
Joanna: What were you doing as a job while you were doing all that?
Daniel: I was an illustrator. I had a day job that I really didn't like, because it was a job at an advertising agency, and that was not the type of art that I wanted to do, because it was a whole lot of insurance, and medicine, and I was drawing, but not drawing anything that I had any interest in at all.
It kind of worked out perfect because when I got the idea to do a story, even though it took 15 years to do it, the first one… They don't take that long now. Now it's about a year to do both parts, the writing, and the drawings. But it worked out perfect because I didn't want that job anymore anyway. My illustration career had become really, really stagnant, and I wasn't even really honestly enjoying drawing at all anymore.
So, it kind of worked perfect. Right when I was writing, that invigorated my art career. And it turns out, this wasn't the plan originally. I had planned on being a magazine illustrator, but it turned out that I really liked doing books.
Forget about the writing part. I never planned on doing that. I never planned on being a book illustrator. The plan was to be a magazine editorial illustrator. It took me 15 years to find out that that job was really boring. But, eventually, I did.
It took learning a new craft to save my art career at the same time.
Joanna: I love that, because I feel like, so often, I know a lot of freelance writers who will say, ‘I spend all my day writing, but it's writing stuff that I don't particularly want to write.' And so, many authors listening are still in jobs like that. I'm glad you re-found your love of art. That's just fantastic.
So, you're now a full-time children's author and illustrator?
Daniel: Yes. I like to put it like this. It's more like being a part-time writer, part-time illustrator, part-time publisher, part-time website designer, part-time… And when you put those all together, it's one full-time job that takes up the entire day.
Joanna: But that is the truth of being an independent creative, I think. When I say I'm a full-time writer, what I mean is the same as you. Plus, I do podcasting, which could be marketing, could be income, is those things.
The job of a writer/illustrator is never just that, is it? There's all the running-your-own-business stuff.
Daniel: There are so many parts. It's funny because actually, if I really had to add up the actual hours, probably the creative part is only about 40%, the writing and illustrating, of the actual day. 60% is the running the business.
Unfortunately, that's not the part I enjoy almost at all, but it's necessary because of the path that I chose, but I wish I could dedicate more time to the creative side. But unfortunately, that's not really how it works when you're on your own.
Joanna: I'm going to return to that, with your publishing choices, but let's just come back to the craft side.
That first book, you said that you had a complicated rhyme structure, which meant it took a very long time. What are your tips now for people who might be writing books for children?
What are your tips for writing books they love, but also that don't take 15 years?
Daniel: Right. You don't want to take 15 years. At least get it a little bit less than that. But the main thing, for me, is I don't think about the kids when I'm writing at all. I don't think, ‘What will they like?'
I think that's a trap that children's authors fall into is that they look around and they say, ‘What do kids like?' And then they try to write to their interests, as opposed to just writing something that you find interesting, something that if you're excited about something, just write that.
I've found that I don't really think, ‘Will kids like this?' Because, first of all, a lot of times, you're wrong.
One of my books I had written, I didn't think this book, ‘Halloween Boy and the Christmas Kid,' that's based on my son… I wrote it for me. I actually didn't think it would sell very well, but I just needed to make it because it was about him, and I created it, and it turned out that it's actually the bestselling book I have.
So, the thing is, I don't think too much, like, ‘What are kids interested in right now?' Or, ‘What do I think they want to see?' Because I think that really limits you in what you can write about, but also, a lot of times, you're wrong. So, you're better off just writing a good book, right?
No matter who you're writing for, kids or adults, write the book you want to read, write the thing that you think is funny, write something that you find interesting, and the audience will find your book.
I just think it's dangerous when you start trying to cater your work to the audience. That's just a big mistake.
Joanna: And then, obviously, most children's authors are not illustrators as well. So, as an illustrator yourself, if an author wants to work with an illustrator, what's the best way that they can communicate their vision with an illustrator? Because obviously, what you do is you write some words and you draw some stuff and then, presumably, there's an iterative process. But when an author is commissioning an illustrator, it's a bit different, isn't it?
If an author wants to work with an illustrator, what's the best way that they can communicate their vision with an illustrator?
Daniel: I've only done two books for someone else, but the hardest part always was with working with an author, and I know this as an author myself now, is that always the writing gets completed first. What happens is the author tends to, obviously, fall in love with their own work.
When you hire an illustrator, you have to remember that it's a partnership. And the problems that I've had in the past is that authors will approach me, and they're so in love with what they've done that they don't necessarily want to let the illustrator do their job, and let them be creative, and take your words and embellish on them and make it better and bring this all together.
They have a tendency, sometimes, to have a very heavy hand, and sort of direct the illustrator and say, ‘This is what I want. This is how you should do it.' When in reality, a lot of times, they're not right, because they're not illustrators. So they don't understand how that process works.
I think the key is, if you write but you're going to let someone else illustrate it, remember, it's sort of like a marriage. This book is not going to anymore be your book, it's going to be the two of your book. If you can remember that, that it's a back and forth process, that these are your words and their drawings, and you go back and forth, and when the product comes out, it's a joint product.
I think when authors go in and they say, ‘This is my book,' that's where it becomes a problem, because they're not allowing the illustrator the freedom and the creativity because they're basically art directing, which is not really what you want to do.
Joanna: How does your process work? Do you have a picture of an image in your mind first, or words in your mind, and is it an iterative creative process?
Daniel: Always, the writing comes first. And I explain that the reason I do that is because it's way easier to change words than it is to change drawings.
If you start writing your story, and the character, for example, has a mustache, and you write that, that they have a mustache, but then you start doing the drawings, and then later in the story, you go, ‘You know what? I don't want him to have a mustache,' that's really easy to fix in the writing process. That's much harder to fix in the drawing.
It's important that all of the words are done before you start almost doing any of the finished art, because it's just too hard to change. Usually, I'll write everything first, but I have a weird process because a lot of times, I'll start writing, and then you get writer's block, and then I'll go and start writing something else, and then I'll come back to the first one and then I'll do a third one.
Generally, at any given time, I'm usually working on three writing projects at the same time and two illustration projects, because those drawings are for books that are already finished, but are waiting for the drawings. So, it's sort of like juggling, for me.
There's a lot going on because you get stuck, whether you're drawing or writing. And for me, I'm lucky because I have more than one job. When you get stuck, you just go and you do something else. Gradually, I have some stuff that's 90% done, some stuff that's 75% done, some stuff that's 10% done. Gradually, they'll all be finished, but they're all being worked on at the time.
Joanna: It's so fascinating. I feel like it's an amazing art that you have, and a) it works very well as a children's author, in particular, to do both of those things at the same time. But let's get into the business side, because you mentioned a few minutes ago that you don't like running the business.
Joanna: But it is a necessary evil for the publishing path you chose. So, you've chosen an independent route.
Why did you choose the independent route if you're not into the business side?
Daniel: That's a good question. I've been asking myself that a lot. I actually never did the formal attempt at getting a publisher. I sent my first book out, I believe, only to one place. It got rejected, and I just decided that it wasn't for me.
I don't love the business side, the paperwork, the accounting, and all that, but it's a necessary evil to have the control. I think once I realized I was going to be doing the art, the writing, but also the graphic design, I wanted to make most of the decisions.
It's funny because there's simple ones like dust jackets. All my picture books have dust jackets. I've never done a softcover book before, and all the hardcovers have dust jackets.
I would probably run into some issues with a publisher that some of them would say, ‘Let's do it this way or that way,' and I wanted full control to make all creative decisions. In order to have that control, unfortunately, I was going to have to do the paperwork and the accounting because I was going to have to run the business.
So, it was basically just for that reason. I always felt that there were going to be so many changes, and to all the aspects, to the writing, to the illustration, because I had worked in illustration for a long time. And even though you think you have a good drawing, a lot of times the client thinks otherwise, and they make bad decisions sometimes. And they'll tell you to change things that you know are not in the benefit of the art, but that's your job.
I didn't want my books to become like that, where there was someone else kind of directing it and telling me, ‘Let's change this character, let's do this.' I wanted just full and total control, and unfortunately, that control comes along with a lot more responsibility.
Joanna: I love that you say that.
This is the number one reason that people choose the independent route, which is creative freedom, creative control.
No one ever says, ‘Oh, it's because I want to make more money,' or something like that. It's always, ‘I want creative control.'
I can see that that's even more important when you're an illustrator as well, because the vision in your head is both words and pictures. And so, of course, if you're working with someone else, they're going to change it. But if you're doing it all yourself, then you can do that.
It is, as you say, both the blessing and the curse of an independent, right?
Daniel: Right. And that doesn't mean that I'm not open to critique. Obviously, every book I've done, it goes through a large process with my own family, but then I have a group of students that will look through it. And their input is valuable.
There are times that I have made changes based on things they've said. I think, ultimately, though, I want to make the final decision, because there's some times where people have suggested things I don't agree with, I get to decide that we're not going to do that.
If there was a publisher involved, they may say, ‘No, that's what we're doing.' Surprisingly, though, something you said about no one ever decides, ‘I'm going to do this to make more money,' technically, I think there is more money in doing it this way.
There's a lot of risk and there's a lot of investment, but I think, ultimately, I actually probably make more money doing it this way than I think I would have if I would've done it the other way. Although there was a big lead-up, and it took time to get to that point, I think, ultimately, it'll actually be more profitable too.
Joanna: Yes. We always talk about this being a long-term business. I was talking with a friend earlier, and I was like, ‘Look, this doesn't necessarily look viable with one book, but it looks viable over five years, over a decade, over the next 20 years, because you have that control of your intellectual property, and you can do what you like with it.'
You can't assess the business prospect or the business comparison if you only just do the next two years, basically. You almost have to think much longer term.
I've been on your website. We'll talk about in a minute, but you've got so much intellectual property now, and these just wonderful, wonderful characters that you own.
It seems like you'll make even more money in the future because of the [intellectual property licensing] possibilities.
Daniel: That's very important, what you just said about, if I had any advice for other children's authors, and a lot of people ask me this.
It's tough with one book. It is. It's just really, really hard to turn that into a business. If you have only one idea for a story, then it's probably best you go the traditional publishing route.
I was lucky because even when I had that boring job that I didn't like, behind the scenes, I was working on a lot of different personal projects. The first book that got published for me, I already had 10 more that were in the process. So, I had a viable business.
It didn't work until probably around the third book. Once I had three, then it became profitable. So, if there's someone out there, and you have one idea, that's great. Don't try to turn that into a business, because that's going to be really hard to leverage with just one thing. Then you're better off just letting someone else do all the paperwork and the accounting, and go that route.
If you believe that you have seven, or eight, or a million books in you, then, yes, then I suggest doing it this way, because, like you're saying, you control all your own intellectual property, and there's probably a lot of it.
Joanna: Although I would say that I think most people start off thinking that they only have one book, and then you get the bug or you don't get the bug. And if you get the bug, it goes on and on and on, like you and I.
I have a lot of books now, and there's always more ideas for more, but I didn't know I had all those ideas at the beginning. So, I'd just add that.
Let's talk about the actual publishing side of things. You mentioned there that you basically only do hardcovers, it sounds, with dust jackets. So, how do you publish your books?
Tell us about who you use for printing and why you make those choices.
Daniel: I've used multiple printers. When I decided that this is what I'm doing, I'm going to do it myself, I know print-on-demand is out there. For some people, that might work. It wasn't going to work for me because I made the decision right away that I wanted to do hardcover, and you really can't do print-on-demand hardcover.
[From Joanna: Actually, you can do print-on-demand hardcovers with Ingram Spark and now KDP Print, but they don't have extra add-ons like foil, etc.]
So I decided that I wanted my books to be indistinguishable from any other book you would pick up in Barnes & Noble. The quality had to be, on every level, not just the writing and the art, but on the graphic design and on the physical products. That meant they needed dust jackets, they needed to be hardcover, sometimes there's laminates and foils, and all sorts of things that any other real, legitimate publisher would do.
At that point, it was the process of finding a printer. There were times in the beginning that the printers were in China. There are other times that I was using American printers. Now it's really confusing, because everything is kind of crazy.
Right this minute, I'm actually looking for a new one, because getting things is not the easiest thing to do nowadays. But I've always tried to get the best quality possible. Now, that comes at a cost.
That's the big difference between going the print-on-demand route and going the route that I took. There was a very, very sizable, legitimate business investment that needed to be made, by my credit cards, in the beginning of this process.
And like you were saying about how you think you have one idea and then you get two ideas and three, well, you think something's going to cost a certain amount, and it always costs more, and more, and more. I found out really quickly, within two years of starting a business, that this business had sizeable debt, but it also had sizeable inventory.
[From Joanna: Personally, I mostly choose print on demand as there is no debt, and no inventory to manage. You don't need to do Daniel's business model to successfully self-publish!]
Luckily, I have a big enough basement to store all this stuff near me, but I have almost 10,000 literal units in the basement, sorted and ready to go, but that took a lot of money to get it off the ground. And then I needed a way to sell that, because if you have a lot of inventory but no sales, that's a big problem.
Joanna: And just to say, though, you can do hardcover print-on-demand with dust jackets through IngramSpark.
Obviously, the quality is not going to match your print run, but why not also have those available?
Daniel: You know what? Honestly, I actually didn't even know that it existed. I just picked my path, and I've sort of shot through this path. And I know, also, though, the problem with the print on demand, like I had spoken about before, that this route is more profitable at times.
I know when print-on-demand books are printed, obviously, they're sort of expensive to get them produced. So the profit per unit is smaller. For me, the profit per book, depending on where I'm selling it, it can actually be $12 or even sometimes $13 per book.
There's a sizable investment to get 5,000 units in my house. But, in the long run, the individual sales are much more profitable as they're selling. You just gotta hope you have a way to sell them.
Joanna: Although I'm still going to challenge you on this and say, why not just have a print-on-demand version up on Amazon or on IngramSpark, which goes out to bookstores all around the world that you might not be reaching in other ways, and then just put a $2 or a $3 profit on it, because you don't have to pay anything?
To me, print on demand is this magic solution where I don't have to pay anything, and I get money every month, which is awesome. I totally love your model, and we're going to talk more about it, but I don't see that they have to be separate.
I see that you can do both, and therefore, not leave money on the table, because we like more money, right?
Daniel: You make a good point. I don't sell internationally at all. Zero, at this point. So, you're right. For something like that, you're right. That is something I definitely should focus on.
Actually, international shipping for books is really complicated. I just had an order in Canada. It became a giant problem. And it's Canada, and I'm in America. This shouldn't be that hard, but it became a giant issue. So, you're right.
And there are benefits to it. I never even thought of that. So, I will look into that now. Thank you, because that is an area that, like I said, that's the business part, the part I don't love doing. So, thank you. You've helped me.
Joanna: Oh, no worries. Well, then I'll help you some more. And people listening, IngramSpark does have a setup cost per book, but you can get a code that will make it free if either you're a member or you join the Alliance of Independent Authors, or in the 20BooksTo50K Facebook group, they also have codes.
Other places have codes, but certainly, with the number of books you have, it's worth joining an organization like the Alliance of Independent Authors, and as part of that, you'll get the code for Ingram.
And because you can do your own designs, it just makes sense. I've sold books in 169 countries (using print on demand). So, I would say, definitely, that it's a good idea. And this is such a good realization, and I'm always looking for this too, which is, what am I not doing?
In fact, just before we got on the phone, I've been going through my entire print back catalog of print-on-demand and putting up my prices, just by a dollar, or $2, or whatever, because of inflation, because of the price of paper, because I want a better margin, and I'm like, ‘Right. I'm just going to put everything up.'
It's because someone said something somewhere and I was like, ‘Right. I really need to look at this.' And I'm certainly always interested in that too.
The big question is what are we leaving on the table in terms of revenue?
Daniel: Yes. Excellent. Because, like you said, you have 169 countries you sold in. I've sold in one and a half, America and barely into Canada. So, yes, I appreciate that. I've written that down, and I will look into that. Thank you.
Joanna: No worries. Right. So, that's the publishing side.
Let's talk about your direct sales, because I think this is fascinating too. And you've chosen this particular route. Like you said, you've got 10,000 units in your basement.
Tell us about how you sell those.
Daniel: I went into this business just loving the creative side of it. And like I said, I didn't really think very much at all about the business part because I was so excited to make books.
I was one of those of people that figured, ‘I got a plan.' And the plan was basically one line, that I would make a book, and I would put it up on Amazon, and then you step two is get rich. That doesn't work like that at all.
What had happened was I had already invested an enormous amount of money, and I had literally no plan on how I was going to do this. I went to a book show, a small book show, and there was an author there that was self-published, doing it the way that I was planning on doing it, and he had sold 150,000 copies on his own. And he's a great guy.
I went there and I met him and he said to me, ‘I love your books. You're going to be real successful. Are you going to do author visits?' I had no idea what he was talking about. And he said, ‘That's what you have to do.
‘When you sell children's books, you have to go out and meet the kids and talk to the kids, and schools have kids.'
So, he said, ‘Come with me. I have an author visit next week. I'll show you how it's done.' I went, and he had this whole presentation, a room full of second-graders, 200 kids, and I'm sitting there going, ‘There's no way I can do this. This was not the plan.' The plan was to make books. It wasn't to give presentations.
And right at that moment, when I'm thinking, ‘I can't do this,' he says, ‘I have a friend with me.' And I'm thinking, ‘Please be talking about someone else.' But he was not. He brought me up on stage. I'll never forget it.
My hand was shaking when he handed me the microphone, literally a room full of second-graders, but I'm the most scared person in the room. I answered two questions, and then I got in the car and I drove home and I said to my wife, ‘There's no way that I can do this route. There is no way. We gotta find a better plan.' And she said, ‘Well, you better do this, because we have 10,000 books in the basement.'
Joanna: In your basement!
Daniel: Yes. So, I, literally, on that drive home, it was about a two-hour drive home, and I was like, ‘I guess this is what I'm doing.'
I lucked out because it was the end of the school year, so I had the summer to figure out what I was going to do. It turns out, when September came and I did my first author visit, I wasn't nervous for a second.
It's never bothered me, because it just seemed like the right fit for me, because it allows me to talk about the writing process, it allows me to talk about my journey, it allows me to talk about illustration, and that's how I sell, easily, 90% of all the copies go directly to the kids, which I actually kinda like because they get to meet me, talk to me, and get excited about what I'm doing, and that makes them want to buy it, and that makes me want to sell it to them.
Joanna: Let's talk about these author visits then. What was your process there? Did you do some speaking training, or what did you do?
How did you change from being terrified to being fine about author visits?
Daniel: No. Nothing. The first one I was supposed to do was a really small school, and I thought, ‘Great.' I basically practiced in the basement. I actually thought I was going to write a script. I thought I was going to memorize it more like an actor. And on the first one I was supposed to do, which was going to be really, really small, I figured, ‘Perfect.'
But then it snowed, and it got canceled. It got moved up. So, my actual first one, my first ever presentation, was to a room of about 300 people. And I don't know what it was. It just clicked.
As soon as they handed me the microphone and it was my story that I was going to get to tell, I just fell in love with it instantly, and on any given week, both virtually and in-person, I have to do probably around 20 separate presentations, 45 minutes each time.
It's never made me nervous. I know that's not normal. I know most people, you're right, especially authors, I hear all the time, that they're not a fan of getting in front of a room full of people. But for me, I guess there was a showman side of it that I liked, and it just never bothered me.
Joanna: Interesting. Okay. You said 20 a week. That's amazing.
How do you get those author visits? How do schools find out about you?
Daniel: There's a few ways. Obviously, word of mouth is very helpful. But there's a certain amount of advertising that I'll do. There's a certain amount of websites.
There's one called authorbookings.com that is relatively cheap, and you could put up all your information up there, and that's where librarians and teachers go to find speakers.
I do a lot of just direct mail, of getting lists of librarians, and teachers, and just reaching out. I find this all the time, usually it goes through the librarians. But the librarians will tell me that they have a hard time finding authors. They want them, but they have a hard time finding them because the authors aren't out there. They're not putting it on their website that they do what I do. So, if anyone's interested in doing it, the best thing you can do is reach out.
I started with just literally my local school. And the other benefit of doing author visits is not only do you sell the books, but you get paid to come. So, even if you sell nothing, which doesn't happen, but even if you did, you got paid for being there.
In the beginning, I would just reach out to all schools that were near me, and in the beginning, you offer it for free or for very little money, and they're usually excited about it. I know here in America, most schools do an author visit almost every year. But sometimes they struggle to find someone.
So, if you're out there and emailing them or calling them and saying, ‘This is what I do,' you'd be surprised that a lot of them will take you up on it. And then usually, if you can do a good job, then the word of mouth will carry it sort of from there.
Joanna: Wow. This is great. You just gave me an idea there, which is, at the moment, I advertise myself speaking as Joanna Penn for nonfiction, and mainly speak at conferences for authors. But you're right, as a fiction author, I have never even considered the speaking angle.
Now, obviously, I don't do it for children, but why don't I even have a speaking tab on my fiction site, my J. F. Penn site? As you say, a lot of the times, people don't really know that you're available for that kind of thing unless you say you are. I saw on your website, you've got a booking on your store.
People can actually go to your store and book a session with you.
Daniel: Correct. You could do it multiple ways.
And then it got even more interesting in the last couple of years because I shied away from doing virtual things, because I felt like kids spent too much time on a computer already, so it's better for them to meet me in person. But then it became necessary for the last couple of years for me to do my job from the house.
Now, I can go in person and explain how I make books and show them how they can do it, I could do it on the computer, people can call me, people can email me, people can book it straight through the website.
If you let people know, then, a lot of times, they'll pick you up on it and they'll say, ‘Come and talk to me, or the people that I'm in charge of.'
Joanna: That's brilliant. When you say you sell the books at the event, so say the librarian says, ‘Can you come to our school?' Do you then say, ‘I'll come and I'll bring 50, 100 books,' or whatever?
Do you get the sale in advance for the books, or do you then expect the kids to be buying things when you're there?
Daniel: I do it the opposite way of literally every other author that I know that does it. They do it the way you are describing. A lot of times, they pre-sell the books, and then they'll bring them, and then have them that day.
I've always felt, for two reasons, that I want to sell them after the event. The first reason is just out of respect for the parents and the teachers, and the students, that I want them to meet me first. I don't want to sell them something, because most times, the kids don't know who I am.
I don't have big enough name recognition that they know the books. So, I want them to meet me first, and then sell to them.
The other reason is because usually, if I sell after, I sell more, because they've met me and because I've shown them how I make a book, and told them where the idea came from. That actually makes them want it more.
I'm usually there for the entire day, and doing different groups, because each of my presentations is different. It's different talking to a kindergartner than it is talking to a sixth-grader. So, each one has different information, different books I talk about.
I bring posters, which is a great promotional tool, and also something fun for the kids. Even if they don't buy books, I want to make sure they leave the event with something that they can remember me by, and just something that they can enjoy. So I bring posters, and then I bring the order forms with me on that day.
They go home after I've finished all of my sessions. And then usually what they'll do is they'll collect them all, and then they'll just send me all the orders and all the payments, and then I'll just ship the books out.
I've done it both ways. I just found that when I pre-sold the books, I sold significantly less than when I would sell them after I had a chance to talk with the kids.
Joanna:: That's interesting. And especially if it's virtual, then it's getting used to that anyway because you're not showing them a physical book there in the room. I can see that that will work.
I also want to ask about your website, DJudeMiller.com. Your website looks fantastic. Everyone should go over and have a look at your website. It's brilliant. But, of course, you're an illustrator too, so, there's lots of wonderful images on it, and your characters look great.
I clicked on a few things. It looks like you use Square for direct sales. Is that right?
How does your cart work and your online sales work for print books?
Daniel: First, on the website, yeah. I had to do that all myself. That was another job that I had to learn, because I wasn't a web designer by any means, and there's another skill.
I'm lucky because I am the illustrator, so things go faster, because I can just do it myself, and they're way cheaper, because I don't have to pay someone to do it. But it is an enormous amount of work.
And then, because I was doing kids' books, it was important for the website to be extensive. It can't be a three-page or four-page website. I think my website now has over 90 pages, believe it or not, of things that they can read, and games that they can play, and videos, and all that stuff.
For the sales, yes, it is going through Square. I have never had a problem with Square. It is the easiest thing in the world to use, because also, I do a lot of book fairs, and book shows, and these type of things, where I have to take payments there too. So I have the device that real easy, attaches to your phone. You can swipe credit cards, you can put payments in. Really, really easy. Never had a problem.
Money shows up in, I think, a day. Really, really easy to do. And I'm doing the shipping. So they're handling all my payments and everything like that, but then it's my job to pack all this stuff up and then ship it out.
Joanna: Is it a plugin? A lot of people use WooCommerce plugin for WordPress, or Shopify. I've never actually known anyone who uses Square. Did you have to just build that into your website?
Daniel: It's actually on their website. It looks like it's on my website, but when you click on, to buy a book, you're actually technically leaving my website and going to a page on their website where all of the books are there and whatnot.
So, when you actually input your credit card and everything, technically, you're not even on my website anymore. You're actually on theirs.
Joanna: That is good.
Do they deal with all the sales taxes, or do you have to deal with that?
Daniel: Nope. They handle all of that stuff, and there's a million settings that you can use. You can set up different sales taxes for different state. They handle all the things. You can do a lot of cool stuff, too.
You can put in coupon codes, all that stuff, because I use that a lot for when I go to schools and stuff. Actually, I don't even use their service to the extent of what it can do. Because the truth is, probably, I don't know, only 10% of all of my sales are actually coming through the website.
Like I said, 90% are going through me physically being there, and then me actively selling it. So, that's one area. Since I have so many jobs, the problem is I don't have an enormous amount of time to focus on building my online marketing. That's one area where I'm sorely lacking, and that's something that is planned for the summer, when the schools are gone for the time being, then, to try to elevate my online sales.
The truth is I haven't really needed it because I do well enough just selling directly to the kids. But as a business, like you said, leaving money on the table.
I would rather draw than do marketing, a million times over. So, I have to kind of convince myself to focus more on my online sales.
Joanna: Oh, I think everyone listening feels the same way. No one loves marketing. No creative is like, ‘Oh, I really want to do my marketing today.' As you say, it's one of the things we have to do.
I had COVID last year, quite badly, and I couldn't work. My brain wasn't working, I was sick, and my income was fine because most of my business is online and scalable, and doesn't rely on physical me.
I think even if you love it like you do, for people listening as well, it's about thinking, how much of this business is reliant on physical me? I thought about that a lot during COVID.
If I get really sick or if I die, how much money will come in for my family, and stuff like that?
Daniel: I was just talking to my wife about this yesterday, and your plan is what I have to kind of start gravitating towards, because we were just saying my business is almost entirely reliant on me because it's become more like a show. Or at least that's what it is for now, is that I'm very reliant on physically being in the room.
It works well to move a lot of books by talking about the books, and pitching the books, and selling the books. The problem is there isn't a lot of passive sales. There just isn't, because I haven't spent the time to set up that infrastructure. So, yes, that is something I definitely have to focus on.
Joanna: Well, I've really enjoyed talking to you. I was looking on your website, and everything looks incredibly slick and successful and brilliant, but we've identified, hopefully, a few ways that you can make more money, for hopefully, less effort in the future. I think that's really great.
I think that we can all learn things from each other. And like I said, I've learned from you too. We're all trying to figure out and it never stops.
We never stop learning new things.
Daniel: I did not expect that talking to you, I was going to learn things, and I did. And that's great, because you're right. A lot of the ways you're doing things is helpful to me. There are areas, yes, that, like you're saying, you used a very, a good word. The word ‘slick' is, yes, my website comes off as very slick.
There are still holes in the business plan. There's still many. And so, for everyone out there listening, there are some things I do very, very well, and there are some advantages I have because I have a lot of different skills, but there are some things that I'm sorely lacking, and still learning, and even growing today. So, yes, this has been helpful for me as well.
Joanna: Fantastic. If people are interested in checking your books out, just give us an idea of what age group your books are for, and also, where people can find you and your books online.
Daniel: This is another thing, going back to having a publisher, since I'm independent, I can make all books. Usually, when you have a publisher, they put you in a category and say, ‘Let's stick with this age range.'
My picture books, some of them are for kindergarten, all the way up till about the fourth or fifth grade. And then I actually have a middle-grade novel that's going to be released in the middle of the summer. That book will actually be for around the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade and above.
I'm actually, creatively, I'm very good at broadening my horizons. And I'm hoping, from a business sense, I have to get better at that, but technically, there's something there for a kindergartener all the way up to eighth grade, and you can find it at my website, is the letter D, and then my middle name, Jude, J-U-D-E, miller.com. Djudemiller.com.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thank you so much for your time, Daniel. That was great.
Daniel: Fantastic. This has been a lot of fun.
This was great! I have a children’s book written and am now waiting for the illustrator (my partner, who’s an artist) to finish the pictures. I’ve been trying to figure out “what to do next” so this has been really informative and inspiring.
Joanna Penn says
Glad it was useful!
Travis Daniel Bow says
“I don’t think about the kids when I’m writing at all. I don’t think, ‘What will they like?'”
This surprised me. I guess it makes sense in a way – you can limit yourself if you focus too hard on making something too “little kid-ish” – but if you’re not thinking about what kids will like, how do you end up writing a children’s story instead of an adult story?
Joanna Penn says
You’re welcome to email Daniel to ask. It looks like he’s doing pretty well 🙂
Diane Martin says
Thank you SO much for having a chat focused on children’s books! I wonder if there aren’t as many children’s book authors doing the indie route since our target market isn’t on social media and can’t buy the books online themselves. It presents its own set of challenges, for sure. Indie publishing advice specific to our young readers is hard to find, so this was very helpful and encouraging to me!
Joanna Penn says
Glad you found it useful!
I’ve covered the topic a number of times over the years, check out this with Karen Inglis and her book on self-publishing books for children
Also, her site https://selfpublishingadventures.com/
Richard Williams says
Another excellent TCP podcast, especially since I have evolved into co-writing books with my grandkids. Great ideas from Daniel for my projects as well as upcoming online platform to help other grandparents use writing to reestablish childhood literacy momentum during the crucial post-Covid period.
For anyone else working with kidlit, I recommend TCP podcast last August with Karen Inglis and her Self-Publish & Mkt a Children’s Book. Combining Daniel’s comprehensive in-person marketing with Karen’s Secret Lake Go Wide Model is what I am planning on doing…thanks to Joanna.
It was also fun to experience the yin/yang of Joanna and Daniel sharing ways to enhance their respective biz models.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks, Richard, and I certainly enjoyed discussing these very different business models with Daniel!
Jerry Windley-Daoust says
This was a really fun episode! I’ve published a handful of children’s picture books (authored by myself and authored by others) over the years, and I wanted to offer a couple of other thoughts.
First, Daniel is spot-on about the role of the illustrator. The illustrator is a storyteller, too, and in the best children’s picture books, the pictures don’t simply echo the text – they expand on it, adding new depth to the story. Whenever I worked with an illustrator, I wanted to do so in a way that gave her lots of creative room. To do that, we would begin with a complete MS, but rather than attempt finished art from the MS, we’d first do loose pencil sketches of the proposed art. This enabled us to try out four or five different possibilities before landing on a final concept for the art on each spread. At this stage, we might even modify the manuscript text to better fit a great art concept. Once the final loose sketches were done, we did color sketches to get the color right, and from there, we went on to final art.
Good illustrators don’t come cheap. The best will ask for a substantial advance. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators used to cite $6000 and up for an advance against royalties, and this has been my experience. You can find illustrators for less, but you usually get what you pay for, and as a matter of fairness I like to pay enough up front to help illustrators keep body and soul together.
Regarding the option of using Ingram Spark and KDP to do hardbound books: While I agree that this is an enormously convenient way to go — and I would never risk printing 5,000 books that I would have to store and ship myself — the print quality is nowhere near what you can get if you use a traditional printer. The color tends to lack saturation. It’s fine for certain types of illustration, not so much for others.
Finally, I found it worth it in the long run to engage a local fulfillment center to handle warehousing and all fulfillment responsibilities. (We kept a small number of books on hand to avoid delays with fulfillment from the POD service; POD fulfillment on color and hardcover editions can take much longer than softcover/black and white.)
I love that POD opens the door to a wider range of options for children’s picture books. 🙂
Joanna Penn says
Thanks for sharing your experience, Jerry!