The Journey of Self-Publishing a Children's Book - Part 1
Back in the first lock-down of 2020, myself and Ian began talking about adapting a short story that I had written into, what would become 'The Legend of the Knightwatch - The Bear's Tale'. Neither Ian or myself had ever published a book before and the next eighteen months proved to be a steep learning curve for both of us in the design, creation and setting up of the book, dealing with book printing requirements, finacial allocations, copyright, software, taxes, etc, etc.
One of the key decisions we made was to go down the self-publishing route. We made this decision more for the benefit of keeping the Intellectual Property (IP) rather than the ease of taking the book to a publisher. There are plenty of small publishing houses in the UK that offer a submission platform for new books online, but for us, it was important that we held on to the copyright and could controlled the IP for the characters and the story. We therefore decided to go down the route of Amazon publishing and besides, the reason for us making the book was something that our children and others would enjoy to read and be inspired by.
Amazon publishing gave us the option to get the book on a major shopping website, but also print the book and ship it out on request and avoid the heavy investment to print hundreds of copies in advance. It also gave us the freedom to purchase author copies at a for-cost price (although would then charge for delivery, even if a prime member - cheeky!) so that we could gift and sell copies beyond the website itself.
Setting up a KDP account (the amazon kindle and authoring account) was straight forward and uploading the book and purchasing test copies was simple. Ian painstakingly went through copyright agreements and licenses to ensure we were able to use specific fonts and I secured ISBN numbers and barcodes (which could have been done through Amazon, but would allow us to go beyond the Amazon shop if we wished) and before we knew it we had our book available to be bought from Amazon sites all around the world.
Yet, as easy as it was to create and self-publish a book, it has been the process of marketing on a limited budget, getting people (beyond just family and friends) interested and keeping the book out there in the public eye, which has since proven to be the biggest challenge of all.
Now this blog post is not designed to put people off. Far from it, as both Ian and myself are planning to self-publish other books in the future, both individually and as a duo. Instead, I wanted to share some key things I personal have learnt during the last 3 months and some issues that I've ran into in the pursuit of promoting the book on zero budget.
1. Breaking the Law
The Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 sneaked up on me and it was only when doing a search about self-publish tips online that I discovered information with regards to a key requirement for all UK publishers. Ultimately, it is stated in law that all books published in the UK must be submitted at the cost of the publisher/author to the British Library within 28 days of its publication. Luckily I discovered this after just 6 weeks of the book being published and was able to quickly send a copy of the book through the post with a cover letter with a 'sorry its late' note attached.
2. Unofficial Sellers & Pirates
Within a week of publishing the book, we were shocked to find other sites online were selling the book unofficially for nearly double the price. Now, I appreciate that people may sell the book off-Amazon and will increase the price in order to make a profit, after all this is how a capitalist society works. Yet, the thing that frustrated me more here was that the seller, an independent online store, was claiming it was the cheapest price to buy it. Not true at double the price. However, even more frustrating to me was that their website page appeared at the top of all Google search lists for the book - even above the official Amazon page for the book.
I decided, with little I could do about them selling the book itself, that the online search issue was my main area I needed to tackle. Knowing a little about SEO metadata (thanks to Google Garage), I knew that I couldn't just reproduce lots of the same stuff in order to pull our page searches higher, so I took the opportunity to design a range of marketing material, including social media posts, advertising posters, creating a book profile for Good Reads and producing some video content for YouTube. I also took the opportunity to do a complete redesign of the Curious Spirit website, giving the book its own page with an alternative blurb for the book, again in order to differentiate it from the Amazon page. This ultimately had the impact I was after, the sellers website page went down the list and both the Curious Spirit website and the Amazon page replaced it at the top of the organic search list.
The other shocking, and more concerning thing that I came across during the first week of publication was that the book had also been pirated and was being advertised as a free download to read. This for us was amazing and concerning (we questioned our security of the KDP site, our e-mails and computers themselves) as the book had not even been released yet as a Kindle version and the only digital copy was the version we uploaded to the printers. I visited the website that was hosting this copy of our book and discovered that they claimed to be connected to DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) as their copyright agent and to contact them if there was an infringement. So I did, but after many e-mails to-and-fro, the DMCA finally declared in a flippant e-mail response that they had no affiliation with the website in question and that I should contact the website's copyright agent as this was no concern of theirs. As you could imagine I was pretty annoyed, and I made sure that I highlighted to them that it was the website that directed me to the DMCA and that maybe this was something to investigate themselves. Three months later and the website no longer has our book on there, but still claims that it is connected to the DMCA. Oh well, none of my concern now! Apart from wasting my time and effort, I realised that to fight every copyright infringement was going to be a mission and although wrong, it wasn't going to be come a keyboard warrior and take them on, especially as the DMCA was as ineffective as a mop and bucket cleaning a cream carpet. At the end of the day, I felt I had little choice but to walk away. People will pirate work and it is going to be difficult to stop it without websites and copyright agencies playing their part, because, as we have seen with film piracy, just like the Hydra, as you cut off one head, a new one will always sprout up and replace it. Challenge it where you can, but you alone can't change the industry sadly.
3. Award Deadlines
Let's get on to the promotion and marketing of the book, which as I mentioned earlier is proving to be the hardest part of self-publication. With little money to invest in promotional work, I thought it would be a great opportunity to submit the book in to an independent book award - you never know, recognition could help get the book out there a bit more. The issue that I quickly discovered is that many independent book awards close at the end of the year, with early summer award events, and therefore releasing the book in December, left us unable to submit the book before the deadline. This does give me time to plan and submit at the end of this year, but for now it's an approach that hasn't been useful. The other issue that I found was that to be entered into the likes of 'The Blue Peter' Book Awards, the Sainsbury's book Awards and the BooksTrust Storytime prize, you need to have your book reviewed by BooksTrust itself and this costs a good chunk of money. I appreciate that, especially in the world of children's books, there needs to be considered checks for quality and content, but again it comes down to the self-publishers competing to find the money to do that. Maybe I need to bite the bullet and do this before the next deadline comes round.
4. Social Media
So, those that follow Curious Spirit on social media, I want to apologise first for the bombardment of posts advertising the book over the last few months. Lots of other blogs talk about using social media to keep promoting and marketing your book, hash tagging everyone and thing possible that may see it, but after three months of doing this, all I have to show is a lot of posts and you guys getting little range of relevant and engaging content or updates. Instead, come up with a plan. I'm now going to restrict myself to how I post about the book from now on - one or two posts a month only and instead of pushing the book, hopefully giving more of an insight into the process and the behind the scenes.
I've posted on various social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin, but Instagram has proven to be very annoying in marketing the book, as every post created has been commented on almost immediately by bots. When they haven't commented, I've got generic directed messages sent from them instead. All these messages do is tell you to promote it on their book recommending instagram account instead. These accounts then tell you that as an author with a book to promote, DM them details so that they can create a post out to their users, before sending you back a message outlining how much they want to charge you for the post. No thanks! Naturally we haven't paid any of these accounts to promote the book, but the bot's comments and messages have become something that I now loathe. Maybe with a more tactical approach and a little bit of money aimed at the right people , I imagine that social media advertising could be a really effective way to promote the book, but at the moment it still feels like a wide mine-field that I'm tip toeing through.
5. Reviews, Bloggers & Promotions
Let's talk about, what is considered by many online blogs that I've read, as the key method of self-publishing promotion - the opinion and reviews from influencers, other book websites and blogs. This has not been easy to do, I can tell you! Currently, as of writing this, we have twelve 5-Star reviews on Amazon. As well as being a great way to recommend the book (we all look at the stars when on Amazon), it also acts as a positive reenforcement that our story has connected with so many children and their parents. One of my favourite comments, which unfortunately is not on Amazon but was posted online, was that it helped a Mum get her child to sleep better during a phase of them having bad dreams - Amazing praise! I'm proud of these comments and reviews and I have used these in most of the social media materials created to promote the book. It has allowed me to create a variety of differentiated pieces, but 12 reviews alone won't help promote the book indefinitely, especially as you want new reviews to be consistently added to keep it fresh.
I was able to publish the book through some book promotion websites for free, such as BookGoodiesKids which posted about the book on twitter and through their website to all its users. Ultimately it had no impact on sales, but it did lead to further online presence on Google and other search engines. However, the biggest issue I found with the free websites is that many will only consider promoting your book if it is free or on a period of discount. Others will of course prioritise paid-for promotions over the free promotions (naturally) and others will only promote books with a certain number of amazon reviews or followers. Again, with little money, promotion work through these sites seems to rely more on good timing, reducing the price of your book or having enough reviews to show that you are popular, not approaches that many publishers or authors are willing to take at the start of their books release.
I am however lucky enough to know a social media blogger who runs an online zine and has a blog aimed at Mums with young children. She amazingly gave us an independent review for the book on her blog and discussed her son's enjoyment of the book. This was great and gave us a brilliant review that we were able to share on social media and on our website. The problem is that I would love for more bloggers to review the book, but have struggled to find ones based in the UK that have children of that age and are happy to do a review in exchange for a copy of the book itself. This is an area I intend to continue to explore and I will update you as my search continues.
I also looked towards submitting the book into book and art festivals to create a promotional opportunity. I submitted the book in January for consideration for my local arts and book festival which takes place in October. The festival, which prides itself on local artists, community and stories and activities for kids, unfortunately declined our application. Disappointing to hear, but even getting the book considered was an achievement as a lot of other book festivals across Essex or across the UK won't even take on books that haven't been published by a large publisher. I am also very cautious of festivals that want an up-front fee to feature their book within a festival, as this has no guarantee for your book, especially if you also can't be there at the event itself.
Finally, I wanted to highlight the other process we have used to sell our book, and that is through the support of the independent shop. 'The Legend of the Knightwatch' is currently available to pick up off the shelf and buy from 'The Art Place' in Chelmsford, Essex. A fantastic shop in the Meadows Shopping centre, which sells an array of artwork, jewellery, clothing, books and creative pieces made by local artists, that the commissions are used for to raise money for cultural and community projects in the area. Not being a national book store or chain may mean that we don't reach a mass market, but the book has been available in store since February and its great to know that every copy bought supports the local community. Which reminds me why Ian and I embarked on this crazy project. It wasn't for financial gain, but to create a book for our own and other children to love and enjoy, to help parents find away to get some sleep and ultimately to inspire and make a little difference in people's lives - and actually, I think we are doing that already. Self-publishing won't make you rich or successful - there is hard work and constant promotion and marketing to do, but it's all worth it when your work can make a difference.