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Smart Self-Publishing:
Tie It to What You Already Do

This is the text of an interview I conducted with Lucas Miller while gathering material for a chapter on self-publishing in my C.I. Guide to Children's Book Publishing. I think it's a useful case study that illustrates one way to succeed in self-publishing.

Could you describe your book in a sentence or two?

Dr. DNA & the Anaconda Invasion is a whimsical, eco-adventure that uses comic-style characters, action and illustrations to teach about anacondas and the importance of predators. It concludes with an interview with an actual anaconda scientist so that it also provides a more factual look at the world's heaviest specie of snake.

Why did you choose to self-publish?

That's a big one! I have a lot to say so here goes:

I self-published for both creative and business-related reasons. I wanted to have the final say over the illustrations, story and finished product. I'm an environmental educator so it was very important to me to have it printed in North America on recycled paper. My particular story was pretty far off the current trends in nonfiction and I also doubted that a major publisher would take a chance on it. I work directly with children and I was pretty sure they were going to like my approach so I was comfortable with the risk. I also know it can take years to get a book finished and on the market and I just didn't want to wait that long.

I have reasons aplenty for self-publishing but I do see the value in working with a publisher. First, they front the money. I could have a lot more products available if I didn't have to figure out how to come up with the $10-15,000 it takes for each title! Still, the publisher keeps the lion's share of the revenue and I know several children's authors and illustrators with major publishers who still have a "day job!"

The biggest thing a publisher could do for me is promote me and my work. That really would be a big help but I can't be sure how well or how long they would do that. They move on the next title pretty quickly! I was also afraid they would choose not to reprint my title and I wanted to know that I could keep the book available as long as I wanted.

How much did it cost, and could you break down the cost into its components: cost of books, cost of marketing, cost of design or editorial help, etc.?

The total was around $15,000.

The largest expense, by far, was printing, which ran about $9500 for 2200 copies. I chose recycled paper and it was actually one penny LESS per copy but it was more unpredictable as far as the final appearance.

I was fortunate to find great artists who were willing to work for basically no advance; I just paid them 10% of list price on the first pressing. It was about $3400 for the art but I know some artists want a $10,000 advance or more. They did great work and I will say again that I was fortunate.

The price of book design was $1000. A good layout and cover are worth every penny.

I spent about $500 on a good editor. I almost didn't use an editor but it improved the book tremendously. I found having a second set of knowledgeable eyes was absolutely critical. My editor helped me tell the story in a much more compelling way and cut out everything that didn't keep the story moving forward.

Other minor expenses were starting my publishing company, getting the ISBN numbers,etc. Those costs were in the hundreds.

I didn't really have a marketing budget because I sell most of my books through my appearances at schools, libraries, and family events. I submitted to several reviewers and awards programs but did no advertising.

How many copies of your book have you sold over what period of time?

I sold about 850-900 copies in the first six months and will break even when I get to about 1000. I have to save sales from the next 1000 for the second pressing. It will probably take about 18 months to 2 years before I'm actually profiting from the book but it has already given a boost to my school visit business and I can now command a bit higher rate. Because I had released another book with a small publisher, I was confident that I would not lose my money and would, in time, profit.

How did you fit your self-publishing into what you are doing in other parts of your life? (I'm thinking in particular of your performing, but feel free to pull in other topics)

Before I even thought of authoring a children's book I was writing and performing science-oriented songs and stories and performing them for schools, libraries and festivals. I made a CD of my songs on a shoestring budget with no idea whether or not anyone would buy it. I also worked with a small press to release a book.

Once I could bill myself as an author and learned how to better promote my materials, business started to really grow. The great majority of my sales are generated by my presentations for schools and public libraries. I probably sell about 30 items per school on average which doesn't sound like a lot but, since they're self-published, I keep all the profits and it really adds up and has allowed me to make a comfortable living for my family.

Would you do it again?

Absolutely! Self-publishing has been the fastest, surest way to produce and profit from my writing.

I would, however, also consider an offer from a publisher if they showed interest. Self-publishing works for me as long my products have a high "kid appeal." I have some other ideas that I think would sell well on the educational market but perhaps not so well directly to kids. For those titles, I will probably be actively seeking a publisher. I'm hoping to make a series out of my Dr. DNA books and I would also love to build those to a point where they attract the interest of a publisher. After 13 years as an independent presenter and artist, I'm beginning to feel that the promotional power of a publisher would help me bring my messages to a wider audience and allow me to focus more on my writing and less on business management. My hope is that I can build enough of a following on my own that if and when a publisher approaches me with an offer, I'll be in a position where I can assure them of my products' success and negotiate a better deal for myself.

And is there something else I should have asked?

It's quite late now and I have to run but I think I've covered all I wanted to say. I'll let you know if I think of something else. Thanks so much for the opportunity to contribute and give my 2 cents!

Lucas Miller's website

Copyright © 2007 by Harold Underdown: please follow the copyright policy you will find on the policy page.

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