The Self-Publishing Dilemma for Picture Book Authors

I wonder sometimes how much great literature has been lost for lack of a publisher or agent.

I have a friend who writes YA novels and publishes them online. It’s a viable way to go; but if you’re a picture book author and can’t draw a convincing stick figure, you’re out of luck. Without illustrations, it ceases to be a picture book; and when you’re writing for little people who can’t read for themselves or are just learning to read, those illustrations are essential to the book’s success. Simply e-publishing the words won’t do.

My sister sent me an article about some whiz kid named Charlie Kadado who, at the age of 17 (17!!!!), wrote a picture book and landed a publisher. Unhappy with the terms of his contract (25 cents per book), he decided to self-publish. So he hired an illustrator and published his first picture book, Perry Finds His Talent. The kid has chutzpah. I like that.

Charlie started Boundless Talents, a self-publishing company in Troy, Michigan, not too far from where I sit. It looks promising, though to date the website’s information is incomplete. It looks like Boundless Talents will be a full-service publisher, including illustrations and marketing, for those who want to bypass the traditional publishing houses and maintain control of their art, or who just can’t seem to get their foot in the traditional door. I wish Charlie and all of his future clients great success.

I have no lack of confidence in my stories. I think children would enjoy them and the books would sell. But money is a huge problem in that I don’t have any. I’ve checked out a couple of self-publishers and the fees are pretty scary. Some don’t provide illustrators, so you’re on your own as far as finding and paying for one. Some just print the books and leave all the marketing and distribution to the author. It’s a risky and expensive way to go.

The folks providing the self-publishing services have no real stake in an author’s work. They don’t collect royalties (as far as I know). They’re paid up front for their services and just put the product out there (often no further than delivering a box of books to the author’s home). What I would give for some middle ground! How about a publishing package that’s priced a little lower (OK, maybe a lot lower) in exchange for a cut of the book’s profits? That would certainly provide incentive for the marketing department to be aggressive while allowing the author to retain the rights and most of the money a book earns. Obviously, if they didn’t think the book had great sales potential, the self-publishing service would be under no obligation to offer such a package and could charge the standard fees.

Self-publishing has come a long way over the last few years, growing from the disdained “vanity publishing” of the past to a viable publishing option for today’s aspiring writers. If it evolves a little further, it might be an option for all of us.


What’s This Word Doing in My Head and How’d Russell Crowe Get in My Bedroom?

I was battling my nightly insomnia (the kind where I fall asleep fast enough but wake up around 1:00 a.m. and stare at the ceiling for a couple of hours) and a word popped into my head. Honk. That’s it. Just “honk”.

I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with that, but it won’t go away. I wrote the word down on an index card and placed it in my trusty purple box. If there’s a story attached to it, I don’t want to forget the word. I mean, a word of that magnitude…

I have other words and lines that have been kicking around in my head or hibernating in the purple box for years. One line in particular has been there since about 1987. No kidding. It’s a great line. Full of promise. But I can’t settle on a story to put it in. You wouldn’t believe the variations in the notes I have on that one line.

Then there’s the time Russell Crowe sauntered in and planted a weird story idea about kangaroos. I had watched 3:10 to Yuma that day (GREAT movie, by the way), and was thinking about it in the midst of my insomnia. My mind wandered to the fact that Russell Crowe owns a cattle ranch in Australia. Thinking about Australia reminded me of a documentary I had seen about the trouble people are having with kangaroos in the midst of urban sprawl. Thinking about that made me wonder if ranchers ever have trouble with kangaroos getting onto their grazing land. Reality pretty much took a back seat at that point (as it should with a good picture book) and the rather silly story of a cattle rancher’s battle with an angry kangaroo was born. I’ve never shown that story to anyone. I’m still not sure if it’s ready; but I love that particular story because of the convoluted way it came into being.

When I finally decided to get serious and start writing about five years ago, I had a lot of trouble with story ideas. I felt like everything had been done to death. It was a tremendous breakthrough for me to just let my imagination fly and start to see story possibilities all around me. Now, the trouble is I sometimes have too much of a good thing. Which thread should I pull today? In a sense, I guess that’s like complaining about having too much money, which is silly.

I finally broke through the barrier of no story ideas when I learned to ask what if? at every turn. It’s a great place to start. And hey, maybe Russell Crowe will show up and lend a hand. You never know.

If Old Praise is All I Have Today

I was going through an old box of stuff not long ago and found a diary I had kept while in high school.  In it was an entry made after my family had moved from Brooklyn to a suburb just north of Detroit when I was about 15.  A former classmate in our honors English class at Fort Hamilton High School told me that our teacher had stopped abruptly in the middle of class one day and asked, “Whatever happened to that wonderful writer, Mary-Jane?” I was startled when I read it.  I had forgotten all about it; but there it was, some 35 years later, written in my own hand.  It made me a little emotional.

I thought about other teachers through the years who had complimented my writing skills or encouraged me in some way.  The first was Mrs. Burgio in the third grade.  She was a wonderfully creative and kind teacher who inspired me to write my first poem.  There was Mr. Pelkonen at Fort Hamilton who taught the remedial English class.  I had been placed in his class because I had to take remedial math and the geniuses at school thought I was probably just all around stupid and placed me accordingly.  Mr. Pelkonen gave us an assignment to read a poem out loud in front of the class.  I recited Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” from memory.  Mr. Pelkonen looked at me and said, “What are you doing in this class?”  The next day, I was transferred to the honors English class taught by his wife.  Mrs. Pelkonen took every opportunity to praise my work.  For our final exam, we had to write an essay about To Kill a Mockingbird.  While the rest of the class scribbled away for almost an hour, producing page after page, I wrote a page and a half and put down my pen.  Mrs. Pelkonen held it up in front of the class and said, “Now THIS is writing!”

After moving to Michigan, Mr. Voorhees at Lake Shore High School gave us an assignment to write a short story about a futuristic society.  While the rest of the class went for the utopian model, I wrote a much darker tale.  Mr. Voorhees wrote in red pen, “Terrific story! I even read it twice!”  I still have it here somewhere.

We face a lot of rejection as writers.  It can be hard to keep your head up when the message always seems to be “not good enough”.  I hope you’ll take a few minutes this week and think about the people who have inspired you, the ones who said you had talent.  If they saw it, some day some agent or publisher will too.

To Unappreciated Writers Everywhere

I’ve worked as a medical transcriptionist for the last ten years or so. That means I listen to and transcribe reports dictated by highly educated neurologists, and I do this six days a week. For all their degrees, doctors are incapable of putting together a sentence that actually, well, makes sense. I edit and correct all day. I make them sound good. I correct spelling, grammar, and syntax. I have to catch and correct mistakes the doctor makes, like stating the wrong drug or confusing the site of the patient’s pain (left foot or right?) Yeah, they do that. A lot. My reward? I get paid 0.0475 cents a line. Yep. So at the end of a long day, I’ll earn maybe $40.

There’s a basic lack of appreciation among doctors for what I do, as if cleaning up their messes should be its own reward. It isn’t. It’s actually rather demeaning. Doctors are an arrogant bunch; and let me tell you, they gripe about every penny they pay me. I do the work because it pays a couple of bills (barely). Unfortunately, since I’m currently back on a six-day work schedule, I’ve lost the time to do my own writing. I don’t think I’ve worked on a story for at least six months. I miss it. Even writing this blog once a week or so means I’m making some rich neurologist wait for his report.  Poor bastard. Let ’em wait.

Spring has finally sprung here and it won’t be long before I can sit out on my porch after dinner and do some writing. The day job ends at 5:00 p.m. The real job starts after I clear the kitchen table. My writing bag, my portable office, sits leaning against the wall where I left it at the end of the summer. I’m not really sure what’s in it. What did I start working on? What crazy ideas were kicking around in my head? I’m looking forward to the surprises I’ll find. Maybe there isn’t anything new in there, but there’s always the purple box of index cards sitting dust-covered on my desk. It never disappoints.

What an insane life we’ve chosen! Toiling away, surrounded by people but traveling alone along roads they can’t see. There are new faces, predicaments, and worlds to describe into being. You and I, we get to do that. In creative mode, the potential agent or publisher is of little concern to us. We know the creatures that inhabit our imaginations. We know where they need to go and how they’re going to get there. At this stage in the creative process, all the decisions are ours and ours alone.

No doubt there are a couple of empty plastic folders inside that writing bag, empty plastic folders that are busting at the seams with promise. I don’t know what stories they’ll hold at the end of the summer, but there will be something wonderful to show for my time on that porch.

My Favorite Place to Write and The Story Behind It

I have a small office at the back of our small house. It used to be my son’s bedroom, but he has since moved out. I thought it would be my writing haven, the place where all my creative juices would flow and I would produce magical stories with ease.

Not so much.

I found the atmosphere to be rather stifling and I had a tendency to nod off in the quiet isolation. We’ll blame that in part on my thyroid disease. To tell you the truth, I hate this writing space. Just doesn’t work. I find myself being much more productive sitting on the front porch. The birds and the traffic act as a sort of white noise for me. Problem is, I live in a part of the country that has long, very cold winters. Factor in the thyroid disease, and we’ll be pretty much into June before I can sit outside without a jacket. Makes for a short writing season. The good thing is that once I get the brainstorming and first draft down, I can do some editing and rewriting from the living room couch. So creatively speaking, I’m mostly a fair weather writer.

Interesting story about that front porch, totally unrelated to writing but interesting nonetheless. A few years ago, I was sitting in my office (I work at home as a medical transcriptionist. Maybe that’s why I hate to write in here.) and heard an argument going on outside. I got up to investigate and saw a man and woman in a physical altercation in my front yard. Interesting characters. Caricatures, really. Both looked like they had lived life the hard way. Lots of booze, drugs, and cigarettes. They were both small in stature and thin. The woman was wearing a pink satin jacket. I imagine they were a lot younger than they looked, and they looked at least 55. I see that a lot in this neighborhood. Eminem grew up in this neighborhood, if that helps.

Anyway, my dog was barking her fool head off. By this time, the fight had made its way up my front steps and onto the porch. There I was, phone in one hand dialing 911, the other hand trying to hold the screen door closed. The woman outside was trying to pull the door open, but if she succeeded she would have met with my chocolate lab’s substantial set of choppers. Absolute pandemonium. She had something the guy wanted and she was not going to give it up. Had to be either drugs or money. They both fell against the porch railing, bending it, and continued the fight as they went up the street. The woman left her purse behind. By that time, the police had arrived to take my statement. The couple was long gone. I gave the woman’s purse to the police.

The next day, the doorbell rang and my husband answered it. He came back to my office and said, “The ugliest woman I’ve ever seen is on the front porch and she’s looking for her purse.”

“Is she wearing a pink jacket?” I asked.


I got up and went to the door. Standing on the porch was indeed the ugliest woman I had ever seen; but it wasn’t a woman. It was the man from the fight the day before, and he was wearing her pink satin jacket. He asked for “my purse,” as if his disguise would fool me. I informed “her” that the police had it, and “she” left. We notified the police right away but never heard anything further about it.

Still gives me the creeps.

Anyway, back to the porch. I wasn’t too upset by the damage done to the porch railing during the fight. We had a contractor scheduled to come out the following week to tear down the old porch and put up a new one anyway. The old one was collapsing. They built a much bigger and better porch. It has become my favorite place to write and it comes with an interesting, albeit disturbing, story.

You have to find the setting that works for you. I think all writers start out thinking the perfect office is one with lots of books, a big desk, and a fireplace. As I wrote in an earlier post (How I Got My Writing Groove Back), a little chaos works better for me. Experiment. Find what works. It might not make sense to anyone else or have an interesting story behind it; but if it makes for great writing, revel in it.