How I Wrote, Illustrated and Published My First Children’s Picture Book
A day after my daughter was born, I started reading children’s books to her—nearly every night, three to four books. Miles was born three years later, and then I read to both of them. I love this bedtime ritual: Seeing their bright faces grow tired, and their heavy eyelids close before my eyes, is something I don’t take for granted.
I love being a father, more than I could have possibly imagined. I never imagined it for myself to begin with, so it’s surprising to both be a father and to enjoy it as much as I do.
Before the pandemic, we’d go each Saturday and get 30 or 40 new books at the Joshua Tree library (which has a fantastic collection). Even though there were hundreds of excellent books, there were stories about the world and self-discovery I wanted to tell Florence and Miles that I never found on the bookshelves.
I’ve always loved drawing, mostly that love has found expression through storyboards for short films and commercials in a previous life. So, I started fiddling around with paper and pencil, but that didn’t feel right. I tried using pens and markers, but that didn’t build my confidence much. I went to my laptop and played around with Illustrator, and although they turned out better, they felt generic. Finally, I picked up a tablet and stylus, downloaded a drawing app, and started creating something that felt more like me. I drew things that I did and didn’t like for a few months before settling on a style.
Around that time, I chose which book I’d illustrate first: An Unforgettable World. I decided on this one because I had not read that many travel books for children that described all the majestic spaces and places and animals and natural phenomena that I think make this world feel magical. I’ve often found myself describing an eclipse or how a manta ray glides or the sheer scale of the Grand Canyon, and I wanted something we could come back to and perhaps selfishly, aspire to see together.
It took me about six months to draw all of the illustrations, which was longer than I’d initially expected. But then again, I never expected to write a children’s book, so many surprises have happened since fatherhood began.
After completing the illustrations, I cobbled the words and art into a book using InDesign. There was an easy to install plug-in for a platform called Blurb that allowed me to upload and print a prototype. I used that service as a way to experiment and understand how to improve the book. I spoke with parents, kids, and friends to help guide me in this mission. And I finally ended up with something my children asked me to read them a few times each week.
Picking a path.
Satisfied, I asked myself, my wife, and my kids, whether I should put this book out, and they all thought it was a good idea. So, I noted and vetted several scenarios, such as finding a manager, an agent, and pursuing the mainstream route. My problem is that I always want to control the narrative, marketing, and format. When I was making films, this kind of tight control was incredibly hard to achieve, and I alienated a lot of folks in being too rigid. Over time I’ve softened, but I’m still a bit hard-headed.
So, going the indie route was more alluring to me since I’d be able to release my book in precisely the way I wanted to, plus I didn’t specifically have to deal with dozens of rejection letters for a year or two. And it’s not that I’m afraid of rejection, I often engage with it, but I didn’t want to chase agents around for years to find my match and then spend a few more years going through the publishing wringer.
I did a metric ton of research, joined a bunch of groups, followed a bunch of authors, and watched people fund their first books via crowdfunding platforms. I saw folks successfully publish directly to Amazon Kindle, and utilize IngramSpark to distribute their book to thousands of outlets.
I flip-flopped between crowdfunding my first book and doing a small print run instead of print-on-demand (POD). I’ve crowdfunded a project before, though, and the investment is essentially a full-time job for a few months. With two kids at home in a pandemic and a demanding remote position to boot, this option felt untenable. So, even though there are some drawbacks (low margins), the advantages of POD (fewer setup costs, quickly publish, ship worldwide) far outweighed the cons (upfront costs, warehouse books, outsource shipping). I know there are a lot of folks who weigh this same list of pros and cons differently, for me, who wanted to get a book out into the world, this seemed like the best option.
There are so many ways to publish your book. The costs associated with those choices can be thousands of dollars. Here’s one more path to think about and weigh against these other options.
Here’s a break down of what it cost me to publish my first book:
- Book prototypes from Blurb were $40 each, and I sent around three different versions of it to friends and family ($120 total).
- I bought 10 ISBNs from Bowker ($295 at the time of this writing) and used two for this project’s print and digital versions.
- I chose to publish those versions using IngramSpark’s POD service ($49 for one book to be distributed in print and digital)
- And I had to pay $25 to update the cover image because I got the dimensions wrong on the first go around.
All in all, the experiment so far has cost me $489 in hard costs. Next time I won’t have to pay for ISBNs since I bought more than I needed. It’s also probably a better idea to get advance copies of the book directly from IngramSpark rather than doing it through Blurb, both cheaper and a replica of what gets sold to customers. As of right now, I’m not planning on doing any advertising, just this nice send-off.
For the sake of comparison, if you happen to be deciding on your path, the variable costs when publishing independently, can be jarring. One route some folks recommend is as follows:
- Get a professional editor ($1-2K)
- Pay an illustrator ($2-6K)
- Order a 1,000 book print run ($3-6K)
- Use Fulfillment by Amazon ($39.99 + selling fees)
- Another fulfillment service for other outlets ($40+ per month).
$489 compared to $11,460 (using middle of the road costs) is a steal.
Hurdling the small stuff.
There were a few tedious and sometimes frustrating tasks going from concept to reality, and other articles missed this.
- The cost of a site and hosting if you don’t have one already can be expensive. On the low end, with something plug and play such as Squarespace, it’s around $144 annually. Thankfully, I already had a site set up for my work and creative projects.
- Starting a business for your imprint costs a fair amount as well, even with services that simplify getting an LLC off the ground for $300+, you’ll also have to pay regular taxes, and an annual franchise tax ($800 in California). A sole-proprietorship does not have annual fees, but you are also liable if someone takes you to court over your work.
- Setting up a file in Adobe Indesign is easy, but there are often templates for each platform that you have to utilize. Blurb had a proprietary one that I formatted the book in once I was ready to get a prototype out the door. Later, for IngramSpark, I had to move the project into another file with different dimensions. Each project migration took a few nights to get just right.
- Exporting the book correctly for different outputs was an exercise in exhaustion. IngramSpark proved especially worrisome because it kept on throwing errors no matter how closely I followed the directions. After a lot of trial and error, I simplified the vector art in my original illustrations, re-exported each image, adjusted them accordingly in Indesign, and exported the book in the standard PDF-X1a format.
- Even though I checked the boxes to distribute my book on Amazon Kindle through IngramSpark, the book didn’t publish. Both sites note it takes a while, so I waited patiently for two weeks to see if it would show up. Finally, I wrote to support on both platforms. I found out that because I’d uploaded the ebook as a “Print Replica,” which is typical for picture books because the formatting is specific when it comes to font choice and word placement, that it’s unsupported by IngramSpark’s integration with Amazon. If you choose a fixed format with two-page spreads for your ebook, you will likely have to upload it directly through KDP so that you can distribute it on Kindle.
Sharing it with the world.
I went into this process blindly a few years ago and somewhat haphazardly. It’s taken me time to work through decisions, and my second-guessing over-analytical mind is a blessing and a curse. But as I put my reservations about embarking on this path to rest, I’m glad to usher this picture book into the light of day.
I want the stories I tell my children to be a beacon of hope for them and highlight the world’s promise and potential. Hopefully, if you end up getting a copy of An Unforgettable World, that is something it helps you impart as well. If you like the book, please review it, tell a parent or a friend, or perhaps gift it to a graduate.