In this installment of our interviews with self-published authors, editor Cressida Downing talks to children's author Karen Inglis about her journey.
Tell me about your writing journey
I’d dabbled for years in writing - I had pen friends and wrote endless diaries as a child, and short stories as a student, but I didn’t have any idea of being a full-time writer.
I was first inspired to write for children when I gave up full-time work to look after my two boys (they’re 19 and 21 now!), and saw a beautiful fox one evening. By that time I’d spent two years reading children’s books with my first son so I thought I’d have a go at creating a story myself - and Ferdinand Fox was born. I found it much more fun than writing for adults and it came more naturally to me.
Next came The Secret Lake – a time-slip mystery adventure partly inspired by the freedom I had growing up as a child. And then Eeek! – a fun fast-paced story about a runaway alien who loves football.
Once you'd started writing, did you feel the need to reach a wider audience than your own family?
Not to start with. But then reading an article in The Times about JK Rowling (in her very early days) made me think I could perhaps do something with my work – not have it just for the children. Not long after that I bought a copy of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook. By this time I had the six rhyming fox stories under my belt. I checked and honed them, then sent them out to publishers and a couple of agents– only to discover that rhyming stories are difficult to sell!
How many drafts did you do of your books and what did those drafts teach you?
I probably reworked the Ferdinand Fox stories about 12 times each over quite a long period!After three initial three drafts of The Secret Lake, I sent it off to Louise Jordan at the Writers’ Advice Centre for Children’s Books for some expert feedback. I probably rewrote it another six times after that! In terms of what the drafts taught me, in those early days I was on a big learning curve.
Originally my characters in The Secret Lake grew up. Luckily Louise put me right, pointing out that children aren’t interested in reading about grown-ups! I also learned a lot about plotting. I didn’t plot The Secret Lake in advance, rather it meandered its way along, some parts working right away and others not! Louise Jordan describes this as the ‘tumble-dryer’ approach where the story eventually comes out at the end!
I decided to write my next book, Eeek!, in a more formal way, plotting in advance with bullet points - as I do when writing for my day job. This type of planning does really help. Eeek’s plot still took on a life of its own once I started writing and I didn’t get it right the first time but the planning helped cut down on some of the agony I had gone through with The Secret Lake. I also learned the importance of waiting and leaving what I’ve written then coming back to it once it’s settled. Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees, and that’s usually the time to take a break. But eventually there’s a magical moment where you make it through the pain barrier. (In the end I left both The Secret Lake and Eeek! for 10 years - literally in a wooden box. When I pulled them out in 2010 I was able to finalize story elements that I had known weren’t working. You certainly don’t need 10 years, but a week or two will help!)
How did you actually go about trying to get published?
I started by sending my manuscripts to publishers - and a couple of agents - and all the brown envelopes came back. They liked Ferdinand Fox but, as mentioned earlier, said that rhyming can’t be translated. With The Secret Lake, I either got a standard rejection letter, or was told that the story was too traditional. Everyone loved Eeek! but said it was too short. In fact, the children’s commissioning editor of a respected publishing house did ask me to get in touch about other ideas as she loved my writing style, but we kept missing each other and I lost confidence.
An agent also loved Eeek! and asked me to tweak the ending – which I did, but then she said she wasn’t sure after all. At that point I thought, ‘Oh God, I could be here forever!’ It seemed so unlikely that I’d get published that I decided I’d better go back to the day job of professional writing. Life took over, the kids went to school and I got a big contract that lasted ten years.
What happened then?
I decided to take a sabbatical from the day job in 2010 and took another look at what I’d written. I realised what bits worked and what needed changing and that I still believed in my work. I did make a decision though - I wasn’t going to send out my writing again. I thought they’d still say it was too traditional/too short/too rhyming – so I may as well do it myself.
By that time I had started to hear about CreateSpace and the whole digital publishing thing – and realised that I could self-publish at very little cost. I was a bit of a pioneer; it wasn’t really being talked about here in the UK in 2010. I was also lucky enough not to have to rely on my writing for my income.
What was different in the world of self-publishing ‘back then’? (Things change so fast these days!)
The Kindle wasn’t really on the horizon so the whole eBook thing hadn’t taken off yet - at least not for children’s books. CreateSpace was aimed at Amazon US rather than the UK in those days and I learned a few hard lessons. For example, I formatted The Secret Lake, commissioned a front cover and uploaded everything to the site - only to discover that if someone in the UK ordered it, there was a three week wait and the shipping costs were high. (This has changed now as they offer a UK channel, so don’t let it put you off using them today.)
I also realised that UK bookshops wouldn’t be able to order my book. This meant I had to go and do more research and decided to use Lightening Source UK for distribution here as they can supply UK bookshops. This is important because even if a bookshop isn’t stocking your book, it appears on their systems, so they can order it in if a customer asks for it. Lightening Source prints it on demand and it arrives through the wholesalers. Using Lightening Source UK also means I can have books shipped to me for events – or to anyone else in the UK – very quickly. For example, I had a woman call me on a Wednesday night needing 18 copies of Eeek! for party bags that Sunday in Cumbria. I placed the order on Thursday, and Lightening Source drop-shipped them to her by just after 12 on the Friday.
The issue with bookshops not being able to order if you self-publish through CreateSpace still remains, as far as I understand it. Though anyone who knows better please do leave a comment below!
Tell me more about publishing a children’s picture book – FERDINAND FOX’S BIG SLEEP.
This was a huge learning curve, which I have blogged about (see the link at the end of this page). As for all book types, CreateSpace and Lightening Source have calculators to help you work out the cost in advance, based on number of pages, the paper size and colour and so on. It’s then very easy to work out the profit you’re going to make on each book.I priced the picture book up with both CreateSpace and Lightening Source, and got a colour proof from each. The colour in both was great, but I only realised when the proofs arrived that they didn’t offer a ‘silk finish’ interior paper, which is vital for children’s sticky fingers. This finish is not an option for print-on-demand.If you are only selling via Amazon – the quality is very good – but it’s hard to persuade a wholesalers to stock it with this finish as most children’s picture books use silk paper.
I found a digital printer directly in the end who was prepared to do short runs of 100 at a time – though the unit cost is pretty high. I therefore hold my own stock, but can only really make money if I sell direct at events or to bookshops. If I supply to bookshops via the wholesalers the margins are terrible as the wholesaler takes a 50% discount – not bad as I’m self-published, but leaving me with next to no profit! I’ve therefore decided to concentrate most of my picture book marketing effort via school events where I can make £3 per book. Another lesson learned!
The moral of the story is that to self-publish print copies of a colour picture book, you need to order a large print run to bring the unit cost down, and the dilemma is will you sell that many?
What marketing and events do you do?
I do regular school events – both locally and where I grew up. For Children’s Book Week 2013 I’m doing an event in support of the Beanstalk Charity and Get London Reading Campaign at an inner city school. I’m also donating 70 copies of Eeek to Beanstalk.
Whenever I can I support my work by issuing press releases and have had reasonable coverage in the local press. I’ve also held signings (as each book has come out) at five branches of Waterstones in southwest London, selling up to 45 books at each.
I support local independent bookshops by creating posters that mention that they stock my books – and mentioning this in any local press releases. I’ve also done readings at Nomad Books in Fulham and to school classes in Waterstones.
What next for Ferdinand?
I’ve spent the last six months on and off working on turning Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep into an iPad App. We’ve just completed the final testing and it’s due out in mid-October – so any time now. The developer I’ve been working with has given me a very good deal to enable him to get experience working on children’s books. This is an example of indies working with indies to support each other.
The cost beyond this for me has been a lot of time, but I’ve loved it – and have done all of the recordings myself and learned a lot. I love all those Nosy Crow apps but mine is different and simpler. It aims to offer a shared parent/child reading experience with fun but simple learning thrown in. For example, if you point at the sheep, you’ll hear the word sheep and a ‘baa’, and a word bubble pops up with ‘sheep’ written on it. Some of the sheep spin too. And there’s a drag and drop word/picture matching game at the end. For any parents reading this, look out for a link to the app from my blog below as it will be free to start with and I’d love your feedback!
What are your sales like? Do you find it varies depending on what you do and what time of year it is?
Print sales of The Secret Lake are around 1,900 (around 1,600 UK) and 2,500 in Kindle format. Eeek has sold about 800 print copies – it hardly sells on Kindle and I have no idea why! It even has the illustrations so the boys are missing out. I’ve sold around 150 copies of Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep. Kindle sales vary by month – if I have a prominent month on social media, it goes up to about 150 sales a month, and about 200 sales a month at Christmas. Print sales are more steady.
I’ve had great reviews, all 4- or 5-star, and I only know five of the reviewers!
So you moved onto ebooks?
I did! The Secret Lake and Eeek! are both on Kindle. I did it as an exercise really, thinking kids won’t be using kindles, but it’s very interesting to see how quickly that has changed.
Do you prefer ebooks or paper copies?
Well, I make a lot more money on Kindle. I get 70% royalty on The Secret Lake selling at £1.99, but I love the print thing. It is a proper book, and I love going into schools and signing at Waterstones.
What elements of publishing do you outsource?
I use an editor and a professional cover designer. On my print books I did the formatting, but in each case got it checked by a trusted professional for a small fee (and a few tweaks!) before upload. For my ebooks I use a professional to format, as I don’t understand html and I want to know that the finished product will be perfect. Quality really is key.
Who do you go to for help?
The Writers’ Advice Centre for Children’s Books is a great resource for anyone wanting help with the process of writing children’s books. They also offer a manuscript review service at very reasonable rates. I also belong to the Alliance of Independent Authors, which is a global network of self-published authors whose watchwords are quality and mutual support.
They have a fantastic closed group on Facebook where people compare what they’re doing, and give recommendations and warnings about companies and services they’ve used. It also offers additional services such as legal advice, links in to Foreign Rights Directors and more.
So why choose self-publishing over traditional publishing?
I’m all for traditional publishing, but I have to be pragmatic. My books had elements that didn’t appeal to the traditional world (such as rhyming text) and there are a limited number of slots for each publisher to take on titles. The points that have led traditional publishers to reject my titles have been perceived as strengths too. The short length of Eeek! for example, means it’s been singled out by the LoveReading4Kids website as an ideal title for their Reluctant Readers’ booklist, which is curated by Julia Eccleshare and The Literacy Trust. Several schools have also contacted me to say they are using it.
The Secret Lake is a very traditional children’s story – but I’ve found that there is a strong market for it - kids seem to hunger for this type of adventure as much as for modern quirky titles.The hardest thing about being self-published is the marketing. You have to let people know that you and your book are out there, so there’s always work to be done – but then that’s the case for traditionally published authors too.
'Talking to Karen, I was struck by her enthusiasm and energy. She is prepared to keep finding out more about this new world of self-publishing, and she has approached it in a very professional way. Her author website is a great model for any aspiring author, clear and full of interesting links and information, but totally focused around her books.
What she said about rhyming titles is all too true. A children’s publisher will need to sell a picture book in a number of different languages, and translating rhyme is nearly impossible.
Nosy Crow is a children’s publisher who have been market-leaders at designing children’s book-based apps. Any author who is interested in this area should look at their titles.'
More about Karen Inglis:
Karen Inglis has been self-publishing her children’s books since 2010 and has lots of very useful advice for other authors looking to get this area of publishing. Her website about her publishing journey is at www.kareninglis.com - which includes this very useful blog post about publishing picture books.You can find her author website here.