Guest Post by Audrey Beth Stein
As I mentioned in my last Writers Rumpus post, in September 2021 I wrote the first draft of a picture book manuscript that felt like the perfect fit for self-publishing: a clear niche core audience, with the potential for a larger audience, but not likely to be profitable enough for a traditional publisher. Nine months later, I was holding printed proofs of that book—THE DAY MY BEST FRIEND AND A MIGRAINE SLEPT OVER—in my hand.
Publication day was October 11th 2022, and I’m back to share some practical details about the self-publishing process.
But first, some successes:
Just prior to publication, the book already had 28 reviews on Goodreads averaging 4.52 stars. The most common reader response from adults was “Where was this book when I was a kid?” Kirkus Reviews declared, “Stein’s picture book captures the complicated feelings that can come along with chronic illness.” And libraries in places as varied as Multnomah County, Tennessee; Mesa, Arizona; Weston, Massachusetts; and Hennepin County, Minnesota had pre-ordered copies.
How’d I get there? How might you?
WORDS, IMAGES, AND BOOK PAGES
One way or another, if you care about quality and about your words connecting with readers, you need feedback, editing, and proofreading. I usually prefer to pay for these services with time, returned favors, and appreciation, rather than cash; I used critique groups, generous friends, and beta readers from the migraine community who were invested in the book’s success.
I found the book’s illustrator through Upwork while hiring for my previous picture book LOOK AT ME. Upwork’s standard contract and its escrow service simplify the business side of things, while the platform’s international nature means access to strong illustrators even for those with more modest budgets. Paying for a test illustration from your top candidates can help to gauge fit on multiple levels.
When I reached out to Ana Solarte, the illustrator, with an early draft of the migraine book manuscript to ask if she had any interest in the project, I discovered that she had also gotten migraines as a kid. What were the chances? It felt like fate. (I had yet to learn that 10% of kids aged 5 to 15 get migraines.) In late November 2021, when I had a near-final draft, we confirmed project details and a March start. In preparation, I added a bunch of illustration notes and reference photos to the manuscript. This is one big difference between traditional and self-publishing—there’s a lot more room for the author to have visual input. Throughout the process, I tried to strike a balance between clear direction, suggestions, and creative freedom.
In addition to illustration, Ana also handled the interior design and cover design, with an assist from me. If neither you nor your illustrator have design skills, plan to hire a designer early on to fill that role—and don’t forget to budget for it!
FUNDING AND EARLY MARKETING ESSENTIALS (BOOK COVER!)
A number of self-published picture book authors I’d encountered in Facebook groups were crowd-funding their projects through Kickstarter or occasionally Indiegogo, sometimes even raising enough to fund sizable offset print runs. It seemed daunting. But then I learned that Kickstarter had a “Make 100” initiative each January, which seemed like the perfect fit to test the market for my niche book. I would try to sell 100 paperbacks. That would cover my initial illustration and production costs to make the book available through print-on-demand, plus send a copy to the illustrator and each Kickstarter backer. If I couldn’t raise the funds, I’d know that the market for the book was really small.
I ended up with 80 Kickstarter backers pledging 120% of the goal, which was enough to also seed a small marketing budget. During the 30-day campaign, I used various kinds of social media to get the word out beyond friends and family, and I also cold-emailed doctors and headache clinics and migraine-related organizations. Through that hustle I connected with people and organizations who would later blurb the book and offer to co-sponsor post-publication events for it.
The cover design and the book description are essential tools in marketing the book. For the book description, early on I used my local Time Trade Circle and an online critique community to find five people to read the manuscript and each write a draft description. Then I worked with those drafts to develop the final copy, which I used variations of for the back cover, publication slip, retailer websites, and part of the Kickstarter page.
Cover design was one of the hardest and longest parts of the process. So many opinions! So much back and forth! I got cover input from Kickstarter backers, friends, family, my art group, a couple of my writing groups, and a couple of Facebook-based cover critique groups. Although I personally liked the final cover, by the end all I knew for sure was that someone hated each and every element that someone else loved. I was thrilled and relieved a couple of months later when the cover received a near-unanimous thumbs up on the advance review copy website NetGalley.
PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION
Current best practice for print-on-demand is to use both IngramSpark (the POD arm of book distributor Ingram) and KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing, owned by Amazon). I followed this practice, setting up both hardcover and paperback for pre-order, and I also did a small paperback print run for Kickstarter backers through Formax Printing, an oft-recommended U.S.-based printer. For an ebook, I used both Draft2Digital (for “wide” distribution) and KDP (for Amazon). I don’t expect many (if any) ebook sales, but free ebook promotions can be a useful marketing tool for picture books, and I wanted the option.
REACHING AN AUDIENCE
In the words of a commenter on my last post, Devin Meireles, “Once you have a product you that are proud of, the biggest task is finding your audience and marketing.” Quite true. I’d done some of that work early on with beta readers and the Kickstarter, but summer and early fall 2022 brought more.
I sent the book to a handful of review outlets, hoping for attention and kind words, and I posted pre-order links on social media and my picture book website. I invited Kickstarter backers to join a launch team. I also set aside copies for post-publication award submissions (the Alliance of Independent Authors provided a helpful resource for initial award research).
After receiving positive reviews from Kirkus Reviews as well as some notable names in the migraine community, I used the service BooksGoSocial to post a PDF advanced review copy (ARC) to NetGalley, which distributes ARCs to reviewers, librarians, booksellers, educators, and other industry professionals. The ARC included a call to action with a link to the book’s Goodreads page, and that turned out to be very useful, as roughly two-thirds of NetGalley reviewers cross-posted their reviews to Goodreads.
I also began reaching out directly to individual libraries and was excited when a few quickly responded to my purchase suggestion to say that they would definitely be ordering the book.
Perhaps the most thrilling part of this whole process has been pressing “refresh” on NetGalley and seeing reviews come in from complete strangers. These are individuals who don’t have to read the book. Yet they are drawn to pick it up, read it, and write down their thoughts. And so many of them are finding comfort, witness, and validation in the book’s existence and narrative. When I was growing up, I didn’t know of any other kids who got migraines. So the reviewers have been bringing ME that comfort, witness, and validation as well. And their words affirm my decision to write THE DAY MY BEST FRIEND AND A MIGRAINE SLEPT OVER, to invest so much time and energy into the book, to publish it.
On publication day I took the book out for an autumn drive, and I also celebrated virtually with one of my writing groups. I spent the rest of the day thanking reviewers, updating websites, and posting about the book on social media. Among the responses: “I just ordered it for my 9 year old grandson who sadly is already getting migraines 😦 Hopefully this will help him understand what’s happening. Thanks for writing this!”
Audrey Beth Stein is the author of the picture books BEAR AND DRAGON CAT, LOOK AT ME, and THE DAY MY BEST FRIEND AND A MIGRAINE SLEPT OVER, as well as the memoir MAP, which was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. She earned an MFA from Emerson College and taught creative writing workshops for a decade at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. You can learn more at her website https://picturebooks.audreybethstein.com and follow her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/audreybethstein/.