You’re an author, you’ve spent your life writing and planning for the day when your books are available to the general public, you want to hear from your readers, you want to help your book sales move along. Social media is one of the few free tools you have at your disposal to connect with your readership and your target audience easily and globally. It’s also one of the ways that readers seek to connect to the authors of books that they enjoy, the hand mailed fan letter is sadly a dying art.
Okay, but why Instagram? Why not Twitter or, Tik Tok or, Facebook or, Pinterest? That’s a great question, and each of these platforms have different advantages and appeal to different demographics. Some people manage to juggle a presence on multiple platforms but it’s a lot of work, and it’s likely you will run out of steam. So picking one platform to start out with is more of a reasonable starting goal.
When it comes to responding to a fan base and encouraging buzz and sales, the two platforms readers, reviewers and influencers will be actively looking to reach you the author of the books they’re discussing and showing off, are Twitter and Instagram. There is a healthy Book loving community on TikTok (see New York Times article about Booktok linked at the bottom) but getting on TikTok is more difficult, the demographic is exceedingly young, and the kinds of books people are discussing on TikTok tend to be romance/young adult fantasy specifically. So if you’re a picturebook writer, TikTok is not the right place for you.
It comes down to Twitter vs. Instagram
Twitter is a great place to connect with people within the publishing industry and join in the conversation. Twitter is where you’ll find editors, agents, writers, and everyone else with a stake in the game professionally. If you’ve had a book come out people may discuss it on Twitter and look for you, the author/illustrator, to tag in their tweets. So having a presence here gives you a voice in this discussion with your colleagues. But Twitter is not where you’re going to find your general target audience for the most part.
You will find far fewer publishing industry people publicly on Instagram, but what you will find are your book consumers. 1 billion people use Instagram every month (compared to Twitter’s 330 million) and 80% of those Instagram users will use the app to research products and services. Instagram is designed for showing off luxury goods, books being an enormous niche. If you actually want to help your book sales, Instagram is the app to jump on.
Instagram is a primarily visual platform, influencers/creators reach their audiences with photos and videos, text is secondary. The #Bookstagram world is where you will find the community of people devoted to spending all their time fawning over books. How do you engage with #Bookstagram in an appropriate way? Well, I’ve broken it down for you below step by step…
When setting up your author account keep it simple, people need to be able to find you that’s the primary purpose here. If an influencer or reader is sharing your book, they’re going to try and tag you in that review, so when they type your name in it needs to pop up and be clearly you.
Some authors do not like to be in photos. I get it, it’s not what you’re here for. But think of this as your ID badge. It needs to look legitimate, and a picture of your garden or your dog just isn’t going to work.
If you want to start creating content, posting photos of your life and your work regularly, by all means go for it. But if it’s not your bag, that’s okay. You just need a profile active and professional looking up to respond to your reviewers, to get that professional looking profile you do need to put up a few photos on the page. An empty profile page looks suspicious and people will think you’re a bot. So put a few photos up and call it a day.
This is all pretty easy to navigate if you want to just try looking around but here is my break down if it helps you feel more comfortable:
Profile Grid: Main Feed: These are the photos/videos you see on a person’s profile screen.
Reels: Reels are short form videos, often set to music, currently very popular with Instagram.
IGTV: Instagram TV is where people put up videos longer than 1 minute.
Filters: this is if you have created a software filter program for people to edit their photos in stories, unless you’re a programmer this likely does not apply to you.
Photos you’re Tagged in: If someone puts a post up of you or your book and tags you in that photo, it will appear here. You can adjust your settings so that these require your approval, and if you don’t like the photo you can have it removed.
Home: Home takes you to your main feed screen where you’ll be shown posts by everyone you’re following, and also along the top of the screen you’ll see everyone’s daily “stories” see below for stories.
Explore: This is where you can search for people or subjects using hashtags, Instagram will also show you content it thinks you’re going to like here.
Likes, Comments, Tags: This is where you will have a log of all of the engagement on your posts, if someone likes your photo or left you a comment it will pop up here.
Profile: Back to your main page, this is where you can access logging in and out, switching accounts, and other settings.
If you put up a story of your self talking, remember to hit the captions button. There are a lot of possibilities for adding to your stories but one thing to remember is that most people view stories without sound. So make sure any messages appear in writing as well as with sound.
Being likeable may not seem like part of your job as an author. Traditionally, it doesn’t matter whether or not people like you as long as you can write. But in the world of Social Media, authors who spend time making connections with book influencers, are more likely to get talked about. Influencers are more likely to go out of their way to find your other books, more likely to go out of their way to film more content for your books. Think of book influencers as your champions, if you win them over, they will gladly scream your name from the rooftops until you’ve sold out your print run.
If you’ve never opened Instagram up before and have absolutely no idea what’s happening, it’s worthwhile to take a week to just look around anonymously. It will help you get adjusted before you make a professional appearance.
Book Failure= Financial disaster, not just for publishing executives but everyone in the publishing industry chain.
Taking a chance on an author is a risk for the entire chain with very real consequences. So any reticence to taking on big risk should be seen as responsibility for employees, not just conservatism.
The 5 factors all contribute to creating a picture of risk vs. reward, profit vs. loss.
this issue before in previous parts of this Demystifying publishing series, please refer to them for more details on suitability of text.
Text must be enjoyable and suits: the intended audience, publisher’s catalogue, direction of trends and, vision for future of publisher’s list.
Author’s sales record is indicator of future success or future commercial failure.
“But what if I’ve never Published a Book?”
So, fortunately for you, this is actually a Schrodinger’s cat kind of situation and BETTER than having a bad sales record. There’s no record of failure yet, so there’s equal possibility of failure or success, the only way to know for sure is to see what happens next.
Comparable titles are used to build a case for the financial viability of your book (MSS) Mention them in any submission to either agent or editor.
So “You Matter” “All Because You Matter” and “I Believe I Can” are titles comparable to each other because they have similar themes.
Good comparable titles must be: recent, specific and, successful.
Bonus Points if it’s from the publisher or agent who you’re submitting to.
For the love of everything do not compare your story to HARRY POTTER or THE CAT IN THE HAT or, GOODNIGHT MOON, etc.
Don’t do this when querying an agent, or an editor, or an influencer reviewer, just don’t do it.
It tells everyone you don’t actually read children’s books because you don’t know the current market.
Also it kind of makes you sound like an ass.
Authority: Relevant credentials are key for Non-Fiction authors
Less important for fiction authors.
Relevancy is key here, if you have a PHD in Psychology, and you’re writing about Rocket Ship Engineering, that is not relevant. So, not really helpful.
Quantifiable visibility within target audience: aka do you have people who will buy your book?
Unlike every other luxury consumer good industry (which is exactly what book publishing is,) publishers are slow to see Social Media Influence as genuine proof of money making platform.
This attitude is changing and some big publishers are now producing books by influencers.
This shift will partly be thanks to the NYT article from March of 2021 “How Crying on Tik Tok Sells Books”
Most publishers don’t know a lot about Social Media Influencing and change will continue to move slowly. But it’s happening.
Are people actually in the industry talking about your work?
How can you get them talking about you? Twitter is actually a good place to start, a lot of publishing industry people are on Twitter. And if you follow me you know I’m abysmal at Twitter, I just don’t enjoy it, not enough pretty pictures, so this is a piece of advice I do not take for myself. I’d rather cry on Tik Tok.
Attending industry events, book launches, meeting people. Doing this in the pandemic might be harder but not impossible. Virtual events are hosted all the time and often you’ll find editors or other senior members of publishing houses showing up to them.
Having a well respected agent is also key for generating industry buzz, see my previous blog in this series on Literary Agents.
So when you put all of these things together, along with some other numbers for production, distribution, etc. They start to build a profit and loss statement, they will assess the commercial viability of your manuscript proposal, and from this statement they can decide whether or not to offer to acquire it and also, how much money they can offer you as an advance.
Removing racism from children’s literature will kill of culture? …whose culture exactly are you worried won’t withstand being held accountable to any standards of common decency and respect for others?
So you’ve invented a great cake recipe (story) and you want to share it with the world and ideally make a little coin too. You have two major options, sell your recipe to a Bakery (a traditional publishing house) or sell it yourself, homemade (self-publishing.) Your friends and family all love your recipes (writing) and are encouraging you to make the leap and get yourself out there. Which option is best for you? Well, that really depends to be totally honest on what it is you want to get out of it.
Production! The baking and decorating of the actual cake!
BAKERY (Traditional Publishing)
Whole team of editors that specialize in each step of the editing process to refine your manuscript! They may have ideas you don’t like and compromises are made. There are several types of editors that work in a house, structural, line, copy, proof and, production editors.
You are your own editor, or you hire a freelance editor, ideally multiple editors to ensure the best quality. There are a number of companies that offer freelance editing services.
Contracts and works with professional illustrator
You contract and work with illustrator at your own expense. You may want to hire an illustrator to do a small commission first of one page, before committing to the whole book, to ensure quality, but also that they can deliver on time.
Team for lay out, cover design and, printing. Cover design is separate from the illustrator.
If you are printing a whole run yourself (as opposed to print on demand services like Amazon where they take a cut of the profit) then the printer often offers lay out design services for a fee (expect that fee to be over $1,000) If you wish to order a sample of your book before committing to a print run, a sample single copy will probably cost about $300. And then people order print runs in numbers of about 500, 1,000, or 2,000 copies at a time. Which you’ll have to store somewhere.
Will meet house standards and conform to house brand on every level. A traditionally published book is a team effort and a team product.
The standards of your book will be whatever you set them at, but every single choice, from the binding to the paper type to the set of the font is going to be your choice.
Marketing and Distribution: Awareness of product, and where/how it is sold.
Bakery (Traditional Publishing House)
After printing and binding your book, publishers have warehouses where they store your books before shipping them off to retailers.
Either you find a place to store your books (I hope you have a big cellar) or you do Print on Demand services where the profit margin is much lower, and you have less control over the quality of the final product. If you only sell E-copies of your book then it’s much easier you can avoid a lot of this. But if it’s a picture book, you’re going to have a limited audience, people generally do not buy E-Books for children.
Your new book will be sold and marketed in all of the major stores that sell books, Costco, pharmacies, airports, grocery stores, major bookstore chains, independent bookstores, library wholesalers, and online retailers like Amazon. Publishers also arrange for marketing within these stores for your book.
You will need to find accounts (stores) to take your book stock and sell your books. Call up libraries, library wholesalers, go to indie bookstores and talk to the owner, book fairs, craft fairs. The internet is your friend here, there are many options for selling your book online.
Marketing includes online paid advertisement as well as in store co-op placement for visibility. Some things you might not realize are paid marketing in fact are, those tables in the bookstore with the “picks” are not genuine recommendations usually, they’re in-store co-op placement. They have been pre-arranged with the publisher for discounts. Online marketing can look like featured books on the homepage of Amazon or Indigo.
Marketing is paid advertisement and paid placement. Awareness is key, if people aren’t aware of your book no one is going to buy it.
Money Money Money: Making a book costs a lot of money
Bakery (Traditionally Published)
Home Made (Self-Published)
Pays author an advance on sales. After that advance is earned out the author receives royalties that can vary between 7-15%. If the author has an agent then that agent usually takes 15% commission on their royalties and advance.
Author retains 100% profit or up to 75% when using services like Amazon.
E-royalties for digital sales are a standard 25% this is a very good deal for publishers over time because they only pay for the base costs of creating the book, editing, lay out etc. Eventually those costs are covered and they don’t have to worry about PBB costs (paper, binding, printing,) shipping costs, the e-copies just continue to rake in revenue. A lot of authors do not like this!
Successful Self-Published authors of adult novels (and there are many authors who are very successful selling e-books on Amazon) will try to retain their electronic rights when publishers try to buy their books. So that means they will sell the publisher only the print rights or co-edition rights (translations) but keep their full rights to their e-copies which continue to exist on Amazon.
Publisher takes on all the financial risks. If the book fails, the publisher suffers, the author walks away with their advance (but their sales history in tatters, recovering from a flop of a book is even harder than getting a first book published.)
Author takes on the complete financial risk for everything, and you’re looking at total investment of $10-15,000 to do book that is comparable to a trade published book. Kick Starter and other crowd funding options are also possible, anyway you slice this cake, you’re going to be doing a lot of jobs you’ve never considered.
Publicity: Publicity is Buzz created around a book that is FREE (not a paid ad)
Bakery (Traditionally Published)
Have connections to traditional media, Industry magazines, Newspapers, TV shows.
Cold call traditional media, local newspapers, etc.
Have a network of reviewers and influencers.
You need to develop a relationship with reviewers and influencers (a professional one.) Publicists at traditional houses have databases of influencers who they have cultivated a working relationship with overtime. When looking for influencers you may want to send your book to, check their highlights for their policies around accepting self-published submissions, it’s usually laid out clearly for you, and if you don’t follow them, you won’t get a response. Make sure you have set aside a budget for physical review copies, influencers will not feature self published e-books.
set up tours for authors.
You can arrange your own tours! Libraries, independent bookstores, local fairs or events, schools. There’s even a website where authors who are available for school visits can put their information in.
They have a professional reputation which gives them authority in finding publicity opportunities.
Build an engaged social media following. No short cuts. It’s not about the number up top but the number who care enough to actually buy your book and leave reviews on places like Amazon and Good reads. Fake followers will not buy real books.
launch party set up
Quality Control: Standards are key
Bakery (Traditional Publishing House)
Standards vary from house to house, but there is a house style, there are expectations. Remember that not all publishers are the same, some are tiny operations and some are gigantic worldwide corporations, so expectations will vary. Bigger doesn’t always mean better, in fact some of the smaller publishers are known for taking the time out to produce much higher quality work, for example Enchanted Lion, Flying Eye, are both smaller publishers who produce top notch work.
You’re setting the standards of quality here. However at the end of the day quality may come down to how much you’re willing to spend, and a little bit of luck in choosing the right thing if this is totally new to you. the first time you bake a cake, it’s not always a great cake. There’s a learning curve here. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, just to be kind to yourself if it’s not what you imagined.
Mistakes can still be made. I’ve seen plenty of boring crappy books made by traditional publishers.
Mistakes can be made, however self-published authors can be fastidious and take proofing very seriously. If anything they have an emotional connection to the work that will drive them to check five hundred times, that you may not always have with a traditional team.
Entire teams of people checking it at every step of the way to ensure that it meets the standards of quality of the publisher.
You’re responsible for checking every step of the way, from little things like margins, to space between the lines. It helps to find multiple opinions and when possible print samples BEFORE committing to anything.
Homemade Options: If you’re going to do it yourself, do you have to do it all by yourself?
Type of Self-Publishing
From editing, to lay out, to printing, to storing, shipping, marketing, publicity, you are responsible for all of it. It’s entirely yours.
You do all of the editing, lay out, illustrations etc. When you are done you upload a PDF to Amazon and sell through their service. You will receive between 35% to 70% royalties depending on the price of your book and which of their programs you use. For adult E-Books this can be very successful. Their print books are absolutely awful quality however so it’s much harder to do this with print picture books and have them look half decent. I have seen a couple that were so good in content that they overcame the terrible quality but they’re incredibly rare. This is the best option if you don’t want to spend any money at all, if you just want to put a story out there, and have it out there, you can do this for free, and if any of them sell, you will get a cut.
Pay to Play (sometimes called “Vanity Press.”)
Companies that print your book for a price (you pay them.) They vary in price, quality and services provided. Some offer full services that a traditional publisher provides, they hook you up with an illustrator (often not a very good one) and they do lay out, get it printed, some of these services even take on the marketing for you and approach influencers on behalf of their clients for reviews. CAUTION: There is a huge variety of reliability with these companies, they can be incredibly predatory, some will take your money, then print your book on Amazon. I’ve heard of people who got their books missing pages. DO NOT jump into the kitchen with the first company advertised to you on Google. You might be swindled. Check for reviews, check for product quality (order other books they’ve produced), find authors who’ve worked with them and reach out to ask about their experiences. It’s a lot of money to flush down the toilet.
Other Considerations: Errant thoughts
On Hiring Illustrators
If you’re going to do a picture book, the illustrations are almost more important than the actual words. People can forgive meh writing in a picture book, but they absolutely cannot forgive bad pictures. So be wary of hiring random people on Craig’s list that promise to illustrate your book for a thousand dollars. There are a few artists out there who churn out self-pub books like a factory, they take the money, give what’s basically clip art, then move on to the next one. The result is not professional quality by any stretch of the imagination.
A really excellent illustrator might charge about $10K, if it’s a full 32 page picture book, and then after you’ve sold that amount they will likely require that you split royalties with them going forward. Unless you negotiate to pay them outright.
You might be able to find promising illustrators who will work for less, consider college art students who are new to the game.
Making the leap from Self-Pub to Traditional
There are many authors who are unable to find traditional publishers to take their Mansucripts, so they self-publish it. If it does really well, then publishers buy the rights and re-release it. A few examples of picture books and authors that started out self published and were then picked up are:
“Race Cars” by Jenny Devenny which was picked up by Quarto and further edited by Charnaie Gordon.
Dr. Cara Florance whose self-published Biology picture book was discovered by Chris Ferrie of the Baby University book series, after a social media post. She now writes for the “Baby University” book series, and has her own book series called “Baby Medical School.”
“Hey, Boy” by Benjamin Strouse and Jennifer Phelan was also self-published, then picked up by Simon & Schuster.
So if you want to be traditionally published, it’s not impossible to start your path with self-publishing and then make that leap.
Where do you make more money?
So if you’re only selling e-books, then conceivably you could make a lot more money. However, it’s more complex than just the percentage of the money you make per book. It’s about how many books you’ll be able to sell overall, that requires marketing, publicity, etc. A traditional publisher has the means and connections to distribute widely for you, world wide even.
Additionally if you’re selling print copies, traditional publishers have the ability and the set up to keep production costs down, print larger print runs, and have the distribution network to sell at every store. You may only make 7% royalties on one book, but if you’re printing your own books by yourself in a run of only say a thousand books, then you’re only going to make a your larger percentage of profit on a very small number of books. If your Publisher can sell fifty thousand copies, and you can only sell maybe five thousand, where is the better deal for you?
At the end of the day, do what feels right for you. It just matters how the cake turns out.