How to self-publish a children's book

Research, write, and illustrate your first children's book

Thinking of publishing a children’s book but don’t know where to start? This article will give you a ten-thousand feet view of what it takes to research, write, illustrate and produce your children’s book.

Children's Book Types

1. Picture books for ages 0–3 usually focus on teaching children basic concepts, such as color, shapes, sounds, and so on.

2. Young picture books for ages 2–5 are usually bedtime stories. These books usually contain 200-400 simple words that rhyme.

3. Trade picture books for ages 4–8 usually contain 400-800 words that tackle concepts of everyday life.

4. Picture storybooks for ages 6–10 typically contain 1000-3000 words that tell stories that guide children on advanced concepts of everyday life and community.

5. Chapter books for ages 6–10 serve as transitions to prepare children for more lengthy readings such as novels. These books usually contain 3,000–10,000 with few illustrations. Using simple plots, chapter books are typically written in series.

6. Middle-grade books are intended for kids approximately 8–12 years old. These books may have strong themes, adventure, and advanced storytelling. The protagonist is usually in the age range of the reader or slightly older.

Children's Books Market

1. The market for children’s books is huge and continues to grow online due to the emergence of online reading platforms and libraries. Parents and children can easily access and buy books on bookstores and online.

2. In some types of children’s books, especially those for the younger audience, there’s minimal writing involved. Most children’s books are image-based accompanied by short texts.

3. Children’s books are usually built on formulas. Children's book themes, plots, and characters are much easier to come up with if you study these formulas.

4. It is relatively easier to evaluate the market as to which types of children's books are selling and what is popular.

5. It is easier to serialize children's books. You can and should create a series out of your most successful titles.

6. Parents and children tend to purchase 2-3 books in one sitting.

7. A good children’s book has the potential to inspire and amaze its young readers as they are hungry for stories and engaging pictures.

8. Parents prefer children’s books to other forms of entertainment like video games.

Researching and Conceptualizing your Children’s Book

Decide on your target audience

Before you start writing and coming up with ideas, you must first decide what age bracket and type of readers you want to write for. This will help you focus your research.

The age group brackets are 0-3, 4-6, 7-9, and 10-13. The theme and writing style of your book will largely depend on the age bracket you choose to write for.

Study the demographics

After choosing your target age bracket, you must study its demographics and needs. Start by trying to answer the following questions:

1. What concepts appeal to this certain age group?

2. What lessons can be taught to this age group?

3. Will your book appeal to girls, boys or both?

4. What type of household do they live in?

5. Where do they do their shopping?

6. What lessons would parents/ teachers want to draw from your book?

Next, you want to study their interests. You can examine what kinds of toys and games they like, and the movies and TV shows that appeal to them.

In addition to studying the children’s profile, your books must also appeal to the parents or guardians since they are the ones who decide to buy the book. Noe that 70% of the buyers of children’s books are women between the ages of 30 and 44. Women are also more likely to recommend children’s books to their family and friends. Word of mouth is a very strong driver in the children’s books market.

Decide on your topic

Go to a bookstore. Look up online book libraries. Look at the bestsellers in the age group you have chosen and examine the books’ structure and format.

This will tell you what sells and what is popular with that specific audience. It will also give you an idea of what type of stories you can write.

Another way of choosing your topic is drawing from your personal experiences. You could write about your personal childhood stories. You can write about practical lessons in life, such as washing your hands, brushing your teeth, doing simple chores at home, etc. Here are some tips to help you come up with book ideas.

1. Your own bedtime stories

If you are a parent yourself, you might have had to come up with a bedtime story on the spot. The story that you came up with may have sounded ridiculous to your adult ears but somehow, it was ok for your kid. You could use those made-up bedtime stories you told your kids to draft your own children’s book. The best thing about using these stories is that you already know your audience and that the story works.

2. Lessons

One of the major purposes of exposing children to children’s books is to teach them some basic life morals or practical lessons. You can use this opportunity to write a children’s book to teach kids some practical lessons, as simple as counting, the concept of the seasons, how to wash their hands, or basic greetings. These types of books are very handy and since they are not trend-driven, they are also evergreen.

3. Unusual hobbies

Kids pick up new hobbies and habits, surprising their parents when they do. When this happens, parents start looking for an appropriate book for the kids to expand their knowledge on their new interests. If the new hobby is something unusual, it may be hard to find the right book for it – that is a market opportunity for you.

4. What’s trending?

The best place to look for Children’s Books trends is Amazon. Dig deep into children's book categories, examine the best sellers and take notes. When something fresh sells, chances are you will see more books in direct competition in the coming months. If you want to play the trends-game you have to have a fast-time-to-market and be data-driven.

5. Classic

Nothing beats the classic. Classic stories are classic for a reason – they worked for the previous generations and they will work for the next one also. You can use classic stories as an inspiration to write your own story. Ask yourself what makes each story a classic and try to copy those elements to give your story a familiar feel. You want to give your audience the same, but different; something they can recognize, but they have not read before.

On writing a children’s book

The dialogue must be simple and similar to how kids talk.

Kids love surprises, so do try to integrate at least one big surprise into your story.

Basic Story Elements

Every children’s book should have a clear theme or message. Use this theme as a guide when making decisions as to how to develop the story.

1. Memorable characters:

Children want to relate to the characters. You will need characters that the children can relate to, they can sympathize with, or can serve as a role model. As a writer, you have to make your characters relatable and at the same time, worthy of being role models. If a child thinks that a character is facing the same problems (yes – children do face problems) as they are, they will be more invested in the story. Note that kids typically prefer characters that are older than them.

2. Bold Start

Many writers avoid starting their stories with a suspenseful event. However, this is one of the most effective ways to hook your readers right from the start. Try using extraordinary descriptions for your characters, or an unusual setting. Keep this consistent throughout the story.

3. Real-life dialogue

To craft effective dialogue for your young readers you will need to pay attention to their conversations with other kids, how they interact, and how they use language. The best way to do that is by spending time with kids in your target age group and observing them. You could also try recording their conversations and transcribing them.

4. Effective plotting

An effective children’s book plot should include an escalation and a happy ending. You need to provide obstacles or challenges along the way. These challenges could represent potential struggles in real life. Of course, children love and anticipate a happy ending. A children’s book writer is expected to provide their readers with a happy ending so that they can enjoy the story and take in the message in a positive light.

5. Recall Factor

A high recall factor means that the child enjoys listening to the same story again and again. To achieve this, you will need to get right all the elements of your book - the story, protagonist, language, illustrations, etc.

While writers of children’s stories work within certain boundaries, you should always use your unique voice and give your personal touch to your story. Remember that it is both a responsibility and a privilege to mold young minds with your books.

Language and writing style

The language and writing style you need to use will depend on the age group you are writing for, the word count you are targeting, the story you’re telling, and your own preferences. Everything from the choice of your words to your creative choices of textual placement will depend on these factors.

1. Rhyme

Rhyme can work magic on your children’s book. Whereas adults are more demanding when it comes to rhyming, children can get excited over much simpler rhymes as it is, after all, the first time they hear them.

If you decide to use rhyme on your entire book, keep it smooth, and consistent. Avoid forcing a rhyme for the shake of rhyming.

2. Tense

Go for the present tense. The present tense creates an in-the-moment effect as if the action is happening in real-time, which draws the child’s attention and makes your book more engaging.

On the other hand, past tense distances the story from the reader, as if the reader is only reading a part of what has already happened. However, you may use past tense if your story is time-bound or about a historic moment.

3. Point of view

The point of view you choose will become the lens of the reader for the entire story. Choosing the point of view is one of the most important decisions an author must make.

Using the first-person point of view will highlight the main character. The entire story will unfold as if in front of their eyes. On the other hand, using the third person (a narrator) gives the author more freedom to steer the story as they see fit. If you are after engagement and you can build a credible story through the eyes of the protagonist, use the first person.

Testing your Story

You have to test your children’s book by reading it to children or giving it to children to read. When testing your story, observe the children’s reactions and their engagement. Always note if there are follow up questions or if there are words they did not understand. Follow up on your notes, make revisions and test again.

This might mean that you have to go to your friend’s place and read to their kids. If your friends don’t have kids, you can try going to your local school to ask for permission to have a storytelling session. Reading your story to kids will improve your current work and do wonders for your ability to write better books for them.

Title

Your title should be both imaginative and clear. Imaginative titles catch the attention of parents and children. Clear titles help them know what they are buying.

There is no one proper way of creating a title for a book. There are, however, better ways to go about it.

If you are new to the publishing industry, nobody will be searching for your book by its title. However, people do search for books using keywords. Using keywords in your title or subtitles should not come at the expense of imagination and clarity – however, when done right, they can enhance your book’s online exposure. You could, for example, include the hobby’s name if your book is about an unusual hobby.

Try to avoid the following:

- Unusual spelling

- Unnecessary punctuation marks (hyphen, colon, or brackets)

- Awkward words

How do you know if your title is good?

First, you need to come up with at least a dozen titles. Second, you need an objective way to find which title of the bunch gets the most clicks.

The cheapest way to do that is by posting multiple ads on Facebook and testing which one receives the most Likes. Make sure all ads have the same graphics and only the tile is different. Set a very young target demographic. Set your bid per click at the minimum of $0.005. Ignore Facebook’s warning that you will not get any views. Very few advertisers target kids so you can benefit from almost zero competition and show your add to tens of thousands of kids for a few dollars. Finally, run the ads and note which one performs the best.

Other texts

1. Blurb / Back Cover Text

A book cover blurb is a short description (200-300 words) of your book. Children are often too curious and they look inside the book before they read the blurb. Therefore, you should focus on making the blurb appeal to the parents. However, do keep in mind that the parents will also look inside the book. You may also include editorial reviews or praise that your book received.

2. Other Works By This Author

If your book is part of a series, make sure you let the reader know. Parents do appreciate the option to buy another book from the same series if their child enjoys the first book.

Editing your Children’s Books

If your children’s book has typos or errors, you are likely to get some furious negative reviews from parents. You have no excuse for getting your grammar and syntax right when it comes to text-light, simple-language books for children.

You will need to hire a good editor for proofreading your book. It is worth it, even if they only catch one mistake.

If you are aiming for the highest quality, you should also ask your editor for line editing. Making your sentences crystal clear will not only please your young readers but also the narrators/parents.

Where To Find Editors:

- Billington Media

- Khelsea Purvis

- Old Mate Media

- Red Pen Proofreading

- Sue Copsey

- Other Marketplaces:

- Fiverr

- Freelancer

- Reedsy

- Upwork

Illustrations

Illustrations scare novice children’s book authors. The requirement for illustrations is one of the main reasons why many writers avoid children’s books.

You don’t need to be an illustrator to create a children’s book the same way you don’t have to have a publishing company to create a book. All you need to do is find the right partner and learn how to communicate your illustration requirements to them.

The easiest way to communicate your ideas is to simply draw sketches of what you have in mind. This will save you time and money in the long run. It doesn’t matter how bad your sketches are – even the worst sketch is better than no sketch if you want the illustrator to bring your idea to life.

Do note that all the illustrations must use the same technique (whether pencil sketch, digital, watercolor, etc.) and must exude the same vibe. This means that you should use the same illustrator for the same book and for the same book series.

Storyboard/Book Dummy

You should start developing your book dummy once you have finished writing the story. Distribute your text across different pages, check the total number of pages, draw a rough sketch on every page and revise as needed. This is a creative process during which you are likely to rewrite several parts of your story to balance graphics with text. Keep notes of ideas for the illustrator.

How to combine text and illustrations

Text As Part Of The Image

Your illustrator will be responsible for placing the text within the image; therefore, you just need to provide them with content of appropriate length. If you intend to distribute your book as an ebook this method will keep the placement and appearance of your text consistent across devices.

Text And Image Separate

The text could be below the illustration or on a separate page. The person responsible for the final book formatting will be responsible for formatting and placing the text.

Image file requirements

Chances are your illustrator will already know what kind of files they need to deliver to you. However, it might be the case that you are working with a more traditional illustrator who does everything by hand and is not well-versed with technology. If that is the case, you will need to make sure that your illustrator’s drawings are scanned using professional scanning equipment. Your scanned images must be at least 300dpi. The preferred image format is TIFF.

Working with an Illustrator

Sample Illustration Request

As a potential client, you may ask shortlisted illustrators for a rough sample. This will not only help you choose the right illustrator, but it will also refine and focus the artistic direction of your children’s book.  

Art Release Form

You need a work-for-hire/licensing agreement. The copyright of an artistic work generally belongs to the artist unless the artist has produced that work as part of a work-for-hire agreement. However, work does not automatically qualify as work-for-hire just because your agreement with the artists says it does. Therefore your agreement should make it clear that the illustrations will be exclusively licensed to you, regardless of whether the work qualifies as work-for-hire or not.

Flat Fee Vs. Percentage Of Sales

Most illustrators require a flat fee and would rather not wait or have to hope that your book does well for them to get paid. Paying the illustrator with a percentage of royalties requires extra work for calculating, verifying and sending payments that is generally not worth the effort unless the artist’s name adds to the book’s market value.

Where to Find Illustrators

- Upwork.com

- Guru.com

- Fiverr.com

- Freelancer.com

Social media sites (children’s book specific):

- LinkedIn – artist and illustrator groups

- Facebook artist/ illustrator groups

- Goodreads groups

- DeviantArt

- ChildrensIllustrators.com

Book layout

After you get your images, you must combine them with their corresponding texts. This is technically known as the “layout” and it is essentially a PDF file that your printer can use to print the book.

At this point, you will need to coordinate with your book printing company to check their requirements, book sizes, etc. If you plan to publish your book on Amazon, you should check out KDP’s printing guidelines. Children’s books typically come in the size of square 10” x 10”, landscape 11” x 8.5” and portrait, 8.5” x 11”. The size of your book is relative to its format, texts, and the size of the illustrations.

Before creating the layout, you will also need to decide on how you are going to bind the book as this will affect your bleed and trim sizes. Children’s books typically come in perfect binding, casebound binding, and spiral binding. Perfect binding and spiral binding go well with soft-covers, whereas casebound binding is a better match for hard-covers.

You may hire a professional to do the layout for you, or you can do it yourself. Do not hesitate to ask your selected printer if they offer this service.

Putting together your Children’s book PDF layout is more involved than formatting a fiction book; however, if you are computer literate you can learn how to do it over a weekend. You just need to invest $12 in a course on Udemy that teaches you how to use book formatting software.

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