Thursday, June 12, 2014

Grab the ladder: climbing your way to a self-published children’s book.


Have you written your story already, but have no idea what comes next?  Everybody says the sky’s the limit, but what if that sky looks impossibly out of reach… and you’re scared of heights?

The first time I published my own kids’ book, I had no idea of what to do when.  What steps came first, and which could wait until later.  And I made a lot of mistakes.  The layout looked funny, I ordered black-and-white instead of colour, forgot to put in the copyright information at the beginning.

I made those mistakes because I couldn’t find a a ladder:  a guide that told me what to do when, or at least, gave me some idea of what needed to be done to reach the top.

That’s why I’m so excited about sharing my process.  This is an evolving process; with every book I do, it generally gets easier, now that the basics are familiar.

That will happen for you, too.  The first time is always an adventure; sometimes a scary one.  And while each book is a new ladder to climb, you’ll be able to climb to the top a little easier each time.

I’m going to tell you step-by-step how I create my children’s books, but every writer will have her own process.  For some, it may be quicker; others may take longer and/or subcontract out some of the parts I’m doing myself. 

Before you start the climb, ask yourself:  how much you can handle on your own?  How much are you willing to pay to have someone handle the difficult steps for you?  Figuring out this balance between DIY and hiring help is something every self-publishing writer needs to do at some point (though once you become an expert, you can re-evaluate and maybe take on more yourself!).

Ready?  Let’s climb our way to a finished book.

Rung 1.  Write your book – concentrate on text only. 

This should be the longest and most involved stage of your book’s “production.”  All the rest is worthless if it’s not a great story.

Rung 2.  *Edit the book.  Edit, edit, edit! to make your text great.

Send it to a professional editor.  Do not rush this stage; don’t worry, there’s lots for you to do in the meantime… such as…

Rung 3.  *Arrange for the art – concentrate on the look of the book

Who’s going to draw the pictures?  Not you or your kids, I hope.  Sorry; I shouldn’t say that, I haven’t seen you guys draw before.  You might be very, very talented.  But even a talented artist isn’t necessarily well-suited to creating kids’ books.  How many children’s picture books did Rembrandt illustrate?  Da Vinci?

Before you approach an illustrator, you should know that most are loath to work with aspiring self-publishers of children’s books, mainly because we don’t have the money to pay them the way publishing companies do, and also don’t understand the process and are thus more difficult and demanding to work with (also usually in a bit of a hurry).  Fair enough. 

Unless you have big bucks to spend, there are two ways to interact with an illustrator. 

The cheapest method (generally anywhere from $200-1000 for a 32-page book) is rather piecemeal, ie ordering individual pictures via a work-for-hire arrangement.  You will get pictures with this arrangement, but not an overall look or design for the book.  Your artist may or may not be familiar with the story; if this is important to you, you may need to spend a little more. 

For more money, you can find new or aspiring illustrators who are willing to read your story and work with you – sort of the way professional illustrators work with publishing companies – to create not only art by the page, but an overall look for the book.  They may have opinions about fonts and even add text to the pages.  In this case, steps 5 through 10 may look a little different for you.  Again, this method costs more money, but if your artist is good, you may get a slicker, more professional, “together” looking book.

Rung 4.  *Arrange for the cover – concentrate on “packaging” your book

Your illustrator from Step 3 may be wiling and able to do the cover, but not every great illustrator is good at covers.  Some don’t know as much about cover fonts and the overall look of a book, and even though the art is good, their covers may look amateurish.

On the other hand, people don’t believe me when I say you can find good cover designers on fiverr who will create a basic front cover for $5.  It’s true!  For $10-20, you can have the entire cover custom-designed. 

Figure out your cover text ahead of time, because, depending on how technical you are, you may not have a lot of flexibility to change it once it’s done.

Rung 5.  Create the final interior as a Word document – getting it “roughed” out

Use a template or format it to the specifications of the finished book (if you’re creating an 8.5” x 8.5” book, use this free template on my site to get you started).

Rung 6.  Paste your text into the final Word document – concentrate on splitting the text into pages.

If you have received your draft back from editing, that’s great.  Otherwise, just paste in “dummy” text, to be replaced when you have the final version.  Don’t be afraid to make changes!  You’re not married to the original text, especially if it’s bad.

Work out how you want the fonts to look.  Hint:  Times New Roman or Arial mark your book as an amateur production, as does using a “fun” font for the meat of your text.  Choose a real typeface designed for books, like Bookman (good name, right?).  Hint:  your writing shouldn’t look like handwriting or be adorned with robots or flowers or look blocky.  Save the fun stuff for the title and half-title pages, if you’ll be using them.

Decide whether you’ll be using page numbers.  Many children’s picture books don’t have page numbers; they’re called “unpaged.”  If you are using numbers, choose where you’ll put them and make sure they’re consistent throughout.

Rung 7.  Insert your art into the final Word document – concentrate on the look of the book. 

Take your time on this rung.  You may even want to hire somebody to help you format the book so everything lines up nicely, and the pictures and words flow together meaningfully.  Here, you’re deciding what the actual reading experience is going to be, so you have go a bit beyond your role as writer to introduce a little visual wizardry as well.

Rung 8.  Create Title, Half-Title, Copyright and Dedication pages – focus on technical details

The front matter MATTERS!

At the beginning, your reader is still feeling you out.  You are self-publishing, and thus, an unknown quantity.  Your book may be good or it may be garbage.  You want to do what you can to ease them into the book.  How?  By making it look and feel as much like a book as possible.

Early on, I made the mistake of creating a book without front matter.  I didn’t think about it, just dove right in and pasted the text of my book.  It looked great, and I ordered a proof and when it arrived… it felt wrong.  It felt naked.  It didn’t feel like a book.

By the time they pick up your book, any reader, even a young child, will have held probably hundreds of books in his or her hands.  They know what it should look and feel like, and front matter is a big part of that.

The job of the front matter is to make your book LOOK AND FEEL like a book.  Does it?  Good, then you’re almost ready.

Rung 9.  Create an “About the Author” page and any other “back of book extras” – time to think about what else you want in the book

This “back matter” is not essential.  If you’re already at 32 pages and your book feels like it’s done, you can always put your “About the Author” stuff on the outside.  This is most common on professional books, except adult novels, which often repeat the same info / photo both inside and out (I’ve never known why!).

If you want to throw anything else into your book – quizzes, colouring pages, promotion for your other books, whatever – this is the place to do it.  If they hated your book, they won’t care about this stuff, but if they loved it, they’ll be eager to find out how to keep the connection going, so now you can take advantage of it.

Want to throw in an author photo?  Sure, but make it look as legitimate and authorly as possible.  No clown hats or birthday suits or whatever, even if it is related to the theme of your book.  Just a nice, sober headshot.  That’s not a law… but it is a very serious suggestion!

Rung 10.  Create your PDF – a technical step that finalizes your book

You’re ready!  There are two ways to create a PDF from Word:  built-in or with a free downloadable print-to-PDF driver.  I have done it both ways, but when I hit a couple of snags with Word’s built-in PDF capabilities, I downloaded DoPDF, which I think does a better job with the graphics.

To use Word’s native PDF export, just go to File, Save As, then “PDF or XPS.”  Follow the prompts, and use the standard “Optimize” setting, which is fine for print publishing.

To use a print-to-PDF driver, choose one (like PDFill or DoPDF) and install it.  Then, you can just hit Print from inside word, choose your PDF “printer,” muddle with its settings a bit, and export your PDF file.

Either way, creating the PDF should be one of the easiest steps of the process.  Depending on your computer and the size of your Word document, it could take up to a few minutes, though (mainly for bigger books or lots of graphics).

Now check your PDF visually.  Open it up and run through the following quick checklist:

  • Are the page dimensions correct (ie the same as in the Word document)?
  • Does your art look okay?
  • Is the art in the right place?
  • Are the fonts correct?
  • If you used a background page colour, can you see it in the final PDF?

You may need to go back in and fiddle with a few things in your original word document and/or with your PDF creator (Word’s or an installed driver) to get the PDF looking right.  This is a bit of a technical step if things aren’t working.

Once you’re sure your PDF looks right – proofread it.  Out loud!  Grab a kid and read it to him/her on the screen or on an ereader or tablet.

Rung 11.  Upload your book – getting it to the publisher

Let’s use Createspace for this example.  Now is when you upload your interior file, in PDF form, to Createspace.  Easy!  You’ll need to tell it whether your book is “full bleed” – ie does the art and/or page colour go right to the edges of the page.

PDF has an “interior reviewer” that will show you any problems it finds with your file.  Interior Reviewer is your friend.  Take its suggestions seriously… kind of.  It’s not the Bible and if it warns you about technical stuff like bleed, sometimes you can overlook it.

You may have to return to Step 10 to fix any problems it finds.  You may go through these steps several times, which feels frustrating.  Take a deep breath… and enjoy the process if you can!

Somewhere in here, you’ll also need to upload your cover.  Createspace has a cover designer you can use if you want your cover to look like everybody else’s.  I recommend paying $5 for someone on fiverr to create a decent-looking cover that will stand out a bit more than the mainstream.  When you upload your cover PDF, Createspace will check to make sure it matches the dimensions of your book.  Otherwise, you’ll need to find another cover that does.

Once you’re finished the Interior Reviewer and have made any changes you need to, you’re ready to submit your files – interior and cover – for review.  With Createspace, this usually takes up to 24 hours but can take as little as 3 or 4, depending on various mysterious factors.

Rung 12.  Proof your book – making sure the publisher got it right

I’ve already warned you about the dangers of Createspace’s Digital Proofer.  Ignore me and use it anyway.  But then… order a hard copy.  Yeah, this will cost a few bucks for delivery; suck it up – it used to cost hundreds, if not thousands, to hold a copy of your book in your hands. 

If you are very confident in the quality of the book at this point, order more than 1 proof copy (Createspace lets you order up to 5).  You will use these extra cheap copies to send ahead or distribute yourself to reviewers and/or bloggers and/or booksellers.  If you’re not sure how the book will look, skip this step.  It’s not worth having a million copies of an error-riddled book lying around your house.

When the hard copy arrives, read it through, once, twice, three times.  Grab a kid and read it to them, too.  Peer at the pictures, close up.  Does everything look exactly the way you wanted it to?

If not… however painful it may be, you will need to return to Steps 7-10 to work on the book until it’s perfect.  If you’re not sure it matters, think how annoyed you’d be as a reader to encounter a problem in a book you bought.

Rung 13.  Lucky Number 13 – PUBLISH!

You are READY.  Your book is ready.  It’s beautiful… anticlimactically, I have forgotten what the publish button is actually called in Createspace.  It will become clear once you are ready (sounds rather zen, doesn’t it?). 

Once your proof is perfect and you’d be proud to share the book with the world, hit whatever that PUBLISH button is called… and that’s it.  Well, you’ll have to wait a bit. 

What are we waiting for?

Sure, the book will be available immediately at the Createspace store, but nobody really buys books there, do they?

If you have an official Release Date planned, be sure you actually publish your book at least a week, perhaps two, before that date, because it’ll take a while for it to propagate fully out to Amazon and to search engines. 

Although the book itself may show up on Amazon within a day or two, the Look Inside feature takes a while to catch up.  Believe me, unless you’re J.K. Rowling, it’s not really a problem if your book “accidentally” becomes available to customers a few days before its official release.

So there it is – you’re a (self-)published children’s book author at last!

But wait… the work’s not over yet.  Now that the book is out there, don’t expect the world to snatch it up.  That’s where Step 14 comes in – perhaps the most important of all.

Rung 14.  Marketing and Promotion

Ha ha ha ha ha ha… this step begins the minute you start writing your book and NEVER ENDS – until you get rich and famous and a big publishing company takes over this tireless task for you.  Trust me when I say it’s a topic for a whole ‘nother post – or perhaps, for a whole ‘nother blog.

As far as I’m concerned, you’re done.  You’ve published your book – yay, you!

Now that you’ve read through all these steps, you may be feeling overwhelmed.  If you have a few projects on the go, it’s easy to feel like none of them are ever going to be finished.  Just go at it with baby steps. 

Pick a project and figure out what what the next step should be.  Is the art finished?  Have you ordered a proof?  Do you have a gorgeous, compelling cover?  Take it in baby steps and you’ll have a finished book in your hands in no time.

Have I missed any steps?  Which of these have you found the most challenging?

[photo credit:  Mykl Roventine via Wikimedia]


  1. Thank you so much for writing this post. I have written three children's books and had no idea what to do next!
    Where can I find the template you spoke of using in order to lay out my story in book format?

    1. Thanks for reading, Ashley! You can sign up for my mailing list (currently inactive, but I hope to restart soon!) and receive the free templates here:

      Thank you again, and good luck with your writing!


As always, I love to hear from you.