On Tuesday 1 August, I took part in the first Can’t Put It Down festival. My audience was a group of three-year-olds accompanied by their mothers and grandmothers. How was I going to keep their interest for an hour? Well, I made sure the book I was using for the event was right for the age of the audience, though often you don’t know what age child is going to show up so you have to be prepared to be flexible. I find if I divide the session into three differing sections: sitting looking and listening, then moving about and finally creating something, a very young audience is less likely to become fidgety. I start by drawing on the flip chart and asking the children to guess what I’m drawing. If you’re an illustrator and gifted at off-the-cuff live drawing, then you could base your whole event on this; it’s always popular. I’m not, and so I have to practice beforehand. However, I can do it sufficiently well to catch the children’s attention and lead them into the story. Not being great at live drawing can have the advantage of not daunting an audience, especially an older audience who then feel inspired to have a go themselves.
By the end of the drawing, I usually have the three-year-olds’ attention and can read or tell the story. Being both the author and illustrator, I like to show the original artwork alongside the artwork in the book and involve a parent to help hold up the pictures. In ‘Flood’ there are many little creatures on bits of debris in the flood so we spend some time looking for them in the artwork. With an older audience, I will spend longer sitting looking at roughs and sketches.
After sitting through a story, a bunch of three-year-olds’ are needing to move about. So, I get out glove puppets of the characters and we act out a part of the story. It’s amazing how children with a puppet can lose all inhibitions. I have some books that lend themselves more than others to this activity: one where the children can use puppets to change the end of the story, another where they can make up new episodes. Sometimes I bring along props, like a large tree cut-out and have the puppets coming out of a hole. With ‘Flood’ I have the puppet characters steering their way through the flood to land. They hang on to each other’s tails with the hen at the back caught in the fox’s brush calling out ‘to the right!’ or ‘to the left,’ the fox pulling on the Ox’s tail, and the Ox bellowing out ‘ow’ and changing direction. All very noisy.
The final stage of the event is quieter: I hand out colouring sheets where, referring to the book, the children can match a creature with the bit of debris it’s sitting on to stay dry and also ‘little books’ for them to draw in. These ‘little books’ are made by folding and cutting a single A 4 sheet of paper; parents often want to be shown how to make them so they can do this activity at home. The children now have something they have created to take home, along with a ‘Flood’ bookmark and hopefully a signed copy of the book.
When it comes to school events there is a slightly different emphasis, although I still follow a similar pattern to a bookshop event. Often a school wants you to fit in with a theme. Schools can also ask you to cover every year group even though your books are picture books, so I have to know which of my books lend themselves to a creative writing task, or a story board task for the older pupils. The objective with all pupils but especially the top primary pupils is to inspire them to want to create something which then surprises them and their teacher and makes them proud of what they have done. To do this you have to free them from their inhibitions and preconceptions. The way I do this is by getting pupils, whatever their age to use the puppets to act out the opening of a story, set, for example on a beach and make it all come alive by talking about what can be seen, heard and felt. Then I ask them to do a ten-minute sketch of a place they know, their own beach, which will be the setting for their own story. For this exercise, I ask for A3 paper and black marker pens. When there are no pencils and rubbers involved everything becomes looser and more fluid.
Events are fun. Whether you are in a bookshop or a classroom, the most rewarding thing about them is being able to inspire your audience to want to do something they don’t normally do.
It’s a good time to be an indie children’s author
If children’s books are the poor relations of literature, then how much further down the pecking order are self-published children’s books?
I’m joking, of course. The reputation of books for young readers has soared immeasurably in recent years. There’s still some catching up to do, but we can take pride in the fact that, unlike other categories, the children’s book market grew 3.5% in 2015, and our segment accounts for 24% of the UK book market. Hurrah!
The stigma of self-publishing – or independent publishing, as we now call it – is on the decline. Each time I attend an event about indie publishing, I find more professionals from traditional publishing in evidence: often speaking, even looking for writers.
To the outside universe, our worlds are converging. But are authors’ own attitudes to indie publishing moving with the times?
It’s no longer the case that authors publish their own work because it isn’t good enough for a mainstream publisher. Until recently, I worked in-house as a children’s publisher, so I know a bit about this.
Some books have a finite audience. (And some much-hyped books underperform massively.) Your audience of 500 might not be enough to attract a mainstream publisher – who has budgets to meet and market share to grab – but that’s no reason for you to forsake that readership. If you publish the book yourself, and win those 500 readers you may go on to net 750 or 1,000 or even 2,000 or more. Then you’ve an enticing platform from which to offer your next book. A ready-made, eager audience is definitely attractive to publishers. Indeed, they’ll be impressed by evidence of a serious appetite for your work.
The big questions faced by publishers are also faced by indie authors: who is going to read it? How are we going to reach those readers?
An indie author can answer the first question pretty easily. Start small; start local. What about the second?
A good package is essential for any book. I knew that when I self-published by novel for adults, Ready to Love, it had to look as good as any paperback novel you’d find in a bookshop. (I hope it is as good …) That meant investing in proper editing, typesetting, production and – above all – cover design. You get what you pay for in this business. There’s no value in a cupboard full of unwanted books whose fate was sealed by the author’s lack of investment in the production.
It takes a huge effort to publish your book independently because you have to co-ordinate and control the process. There’s nothing like devoting your own time and money to a project to make you think: Is it worth it? Is it good enough to lavish these resources on? Moreover – is my career as a writer worth that investment? Don’t just think in terms of one-off books (publishers seldom do), think about the long term.
I’m so pleased I have a finished book as a physical object to offer people. People’s reactions to it have given my confidence to begin something new. I don’t yet know what that next book’s path towards its audience will be – but I feel as if I’m getting somewhere. Building something. I know I can use all I’ve learned to hopefully be even more successful next time.
I hope you feel that way too as you journey on the path to publication. I look forward to seeing your books and hearing your stories.
And good luck!
Jon Appleton worked in publishing for 20 years – for Hodder, Orion, Scholastic and Piccadilly Press, amongst others. Now he’s a freelance editor, writer and writers’ mentor. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @appletonsbooks and follow his blog here.
How'd You Get the Idea In the First Place?
As it happens, I can tell you!
I was listening to my iPod, Adele’s first album,one spring morning in 2007 as I was walking along the Stowe, Vermont Recreation Path. It’s a beautiful path that follows a rocky stream through woods and fields with the Green Mountains in the long view. I had recently gotten a half-time job (I’m a government lawyer by day) and I had two kids in school. This meant I had a little mental space and time with which to work for the first time in years. I had been a writer before law school, for local newspapers and in a college PR office, and I had continued writing (for fun) on a blog that I have kept since 2006. I mention this because I was in the writing habit, which helped, I think, to keep ideas coming. The walking part is important too. I walk every day if I can. I got to thinking that day as I listened to Adele sing about how important it was for gifted people to arrive at the right place and time if their gifts are to be realized.
I've always been a reader, of course, and my major in college was English literature. So when this thought flitted across my mind, I immediately thought of Thomas Gray’s famous poem, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,’ which includes this notion as one of its major themes. That is, it contemplates those whose talents never stood a chance, given the time and place in which they were deposited. I wondered what if some exceptional people weren't constrained by the circumstances of their birth? What if the Universe had a way of, very occasionally, correcting these mistakes? Of shifting people born in the wrong time and place to the place where they and their talents could flourish?
What about, a time travel story, I thought, with a cossetted but basically good American rich kid at its center? How about a rescue mission – where our hero has to find a girl born out of her time and a secret not meant to be and then get home with them both?
It was my own small “J.K. Rowling moment” – the one we’ve all heard about, when Ms. Rowling was riding on a train and suddenly had an idea for a story about a school for young wizards?
I’m no J.K. Rowling, but I think I experienced something of the same thrill. I knew such a story would allow me to braid together many of my lifelong interests: English language and literature, social history, especially women’s history, the differences between English and American culture, as well as their similarities, and about how we all must meet the challenges that life throws at us. I could also write about fun stuff (for me) Staffordshire pottery, London in the twenties, the English countryside and English country living at its last gasp between the wars. I could include three-speed bicycles and manual typewriters and dogs and old buildings and old songs and new music and stranger-in-a-strange land and all of that!
The book unfolded itself right there.
Well, sort of. I then had to spend the next five years working it all out.
It wasn’t all joy, working on the book. But it did a great deal for me personally. I enjoyed the research, writing the characters into being, and working out the plot lines. Mostly I was trying to write the book I wished was out there for me to read when I was growing up.
Any Advice For Aspiring Writers/Self-Publishers?
I’ll venture this much more: all writers should read good writing and stand up for it. I am dismayed that there are readers out there, by the millions, apparently, who don’t care much about how a story is written. For a writer to take that attitude seems almost criminal. (Believe it or not, there are such people). Good writing matters and bad writing, at least when offered to the public for sale, deserves to be punished.
I am self published and happily so. Not because I’ve been made rich and famous but because I used my time and energy in a way that meant I now have a book to show. I sent the manuscript around to about 25 agents when it was done. I got one nibble from an agent who then passed. Submitting was a lot of work. How much time do we have? I wanted it done and, as time went on, I wanted it done my way.
Finally, Looks Matter
My way was OK, but one mistake I made initially was in the packaging. I have a background in public relations and have worked on a few magazines and I developed a cover that I liked pretty well. It wasn’t terrible. One or two readers commented that the book was better than its cover. Hmm. About a year after the book’s initial release, I heard from a potential audio book narrator who is also a hardheaded businessman. The cover was not good enough, he said flatly. People do judge books by their covers. I got the message. I went looking for an artist who could convey the romance of the 1920s – someone who could do with light what Maxfield Parrish had done. I found him in Juan Wijngaard. I came across Juan’s work at the website of the well-known art gallery The Illustration Cupboard, in London. I approached him very sheepishly because he was a real Artist and I had no idea how one approaches real Artists. It turned out he was very nice and he had some interest – if he liked the book.
This last bit was key for me too. I had approached at least one other book designer by then whose work I liked. I asked if he would read my book and he said “no.” He did not have time. I offered to pay more and he still said no. I appreciated his candor, but this was a deal breaker. I felt strongly that a book cover is a collaborative effort. Juan and I found quickly that we had lots of common ground. (He’s Dutch, which is what you want in a painter, correct? And he loved bikes (see reference to “Dutch”) and music, which is a key story element. He had lived in England and trained at the Royal Academy. There was a lot of synchronicity at work. The Universe, in its way, seemed to have matched us, or so it seemed to me. He created a beautiful cover and I relaunched the book with his cover and just a few corrections to the text.
I invested some money in Juan, and in the excellent book designer Scarlett Ruger, but not a crazy amount. I don’t have crazy amounts. I reasoned that even if this investment were never repaid monetarily, it would be repaid by the pride I felt in having made something just as good as I could. If I had things to do over again, I wouldn’t have tried to skimp on that first –round cover. I had put six years of my time writing into the book and that was justification enough to invest in what lay beyond my skill. The cover realized an inward vision for me and I hope it will draw in readers who will not be disappointed in what they find behind it.