[Originally published 3/3/09 as 3 Deadly Mistakes of Self-Publishing Picture Books. Revisited and revised 10/13/16.]
There are five basic mistakes writers who self-publish children’s books make more often than not. These five mistakes can kill a good idea and lead a writer to publish something that should never have been allowed in print. The truly amazing thing is the author never sees the literary atrocity they have committed. Like a new parent, their child is the most beautiful baby in the world.
When I originally wrote this article in 2009 I cut to the point, only referenced 3 Mistakes, and focused on picture books. At that time I neglected to inform you that, as a writer and editor, I have been on both sides of this issue. Avoiding these mistakes will make any children’s book better. This article is not intended to be an insult to aspiring writers, editors or publishing houses. It is intended to be a wake-up call. As writers and editors we need to open our eyes to simplicity.
The last seven years have seen a proliferation of tools, online publishers and distribution channels designed to feed into our vanity and make it easy for anyone to publish a book. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that – we should all be storytellers. But let’s avoid the worst and most common mistakes by knowing the problems before we pick up a pen or open a laptop.
- Illustrations — Great illustrations can make bad books readable and
turn good books into family favorites. Although it has gotten better in the
last seven years, self-published books still tend to have timid and amateurish
illustrations. This automatically gives the impression that your book isn’t on
the same level as the major publishers’ books. Poor illustration quality will
effectively doom your story no matter how good the writing is.
- Overindulgence — I call this one verbal gluttony because we writers say too much. We are usually too close to our own work to see the flaws and make necessary edits. Some online publishers will provide editors, but generally speaking, the writer is king when it comes to self-publishing. What a writer wants on the page stays on the page. Verbal gluttony tends to lead to See and Say books that never involve or engage readers. It’s a big killer for picture books. Great picture books include the reader in a conversation. Ideally the writer offers enough
- Illustrations — Did I say illustrations earlier? Well there’s more. Stop
playing See and Say! Visuals should
add to and accentuate the text, not repeat it. And if you can create the
setting in an illustration, don’t do it in the text. The See and Say approach slows the pacing of your story and bores the
reader. Engaging illustrations that enhance your writing and an economical use
of words will encourage children to keep reading and make connections with the
- Design and Layout — Font selection and art direction make a big difference
in a book’s readability. The flow of a story through its pages is highly important
for reader engagement. Does the layout encourage a natural page turn? Does a
reader know where the next line of text is located? If the illustrations, the
font and the layout are competing, the answers will be resounding nos. Readers will
get confused and the story’s flow and pacing will be interrupted. As a book
reviewer I see this problem – in all levels of publishing. So test the layout
many times, if possible.
- Illiteracy — Read. Read often. And read some more. Everyone has a story to tell, but far too many would-be children’s book authors never actually read children’s books. There are many different styles and genres – reading current books will help you understand what current readers expect from those styles and genres. I can’t tell you how many books I have read that appear to have been written by someone who has never read a children’s book. You may know your story better than anyone else, but understanding how children will read it is the key to telling it in a way they will accept.
Read. Write. Edit. Illustrate. Most self-publishing authors can do one or two of these well. It’s unlikely you can do all of them as well as you need to in order to put together a great book. If you are reading this you are probably writing a book. You’re a writer, so focus on reading and writing in your chosen genre. Hire a good editor and a good illustrator to handle the rest.