Avoiding Indie Publisher “Rookie Mistakes”

My experience in self-publishing over the years has led me to catalog various traps to which well-meaning indie publishers can unwittingly fall prey. Here are a few of the more glaring examples that I recently identified while reviewing several kids’ books the printer sent me as samples of their previously printed titles:

  1. After looking at your book for a long time, you can lose objectivity, and you start to think people who have never seen the book before will see it as you see it. The cover illustrations of all three book samples the printer sent me lacked a clear presentation of what the book was about to those unfamiliar with the story/drawing style. Either it was uncertain what the illustration was showing, or the title lettering was too cluttered and flowery. I had to read one of the books in its entirety before I understood that the cover portrayed a king putting a crown on his princely son. A good cover should clearly and immediately(at best, iconically) illustrate the main focus of the story.
  2. Good writing shores up shoddy illustrations much better than good illustrations shore up shoddy writing. I learned this lesson from the cartooning world, and boy, is it true. The aforementioned book about the prince was written in a strangely sloppy rhyming scheme, clashing with the somewhat impressive (albeit digital) illustrations. I had to force myself to slog through its grating, muddled, Dr. Seuss Lite cadence. In contrast, the graphic novel based on a Heinlein sci-fi classic seemed much more approachable. You knew from the get-go the story would be good, even if the artwork was a bit “middle school detention hall” style.
  3. The book’s title is much more important than many writers understand. One of the titles, “The Furry Princess” oddly focused on the fact that the characters are all anthropomorphic animals, which last time I checked was not a novelty in children’s literature. Might as well have named it “Talking Animals”. “Golly’s Folly” assumed that you already know (and care) that Golly is the name of the prince. Even worse, the title itself contains the spoiler that the prince’s Prodigal Son-like adventure ends in…well, prodigality.
  4. And last but not least, NO ONE CARES YOU THINK YOUR BOOK IS AWESOME. They really don’t. Your job is to make them care. In about 1.4 seconds, nonetheless. If your title and cover art manage to grab them, you will have maybe another precious 5.7 seconds of their attention as they flip through your book. You have to convince them in that critical blink of an eye that they cannot simply put it back on the shelf. Your book must have a cool, casual confidence to it. Readers can tell a mile away when you’re “trying too hard”(the sad death knell for many a picture book). For example, the sample book about the prince even included an overbearing appendix of “talking points to discuss with your kids”, as well as a list of Bible verses for reference. For me, this editorial choice completely drained the book of its last drop of quaint wonder and turned it into a schmaltzy episode of Davy and Goliath. The more you tip your hand with such self-indulgent 4th wall breakers, the less mystique your book will retain.

The good news: knowing what not to do is already half the battle. Avoiding the grosser deal-breaker blunders that make prospective buyers wrinkle their noses and reshelf your book is not really that hard once you know how to identify and eliminate them. This will allow the more elegant elements of your book to shine through, uncolored by obvious rookie errors.

The Essentials of Writing a Catholic Children’s Book

Hostie in search of his Makers in The Littlest Bread.

Over the last year and a half I have had the privilege of working on a storybook for Catholic children. The book is called The Littlest Bread: A Small Host’s Journey Into Light, and follows the adventures of Hostie, a (unconsecrated!) communion host accidentally abandoned in a convent bakery. Though snubbed by his fellow baked goods, Hostie through various trials eventually discovers his lofty destiny.

Though as a former newspaper cartoonist this was not my first book, I quickly realized storybooks were a different ballgame; just because I had read many kids’ books did not necessarily mean I could make one. The piles of well-intentioned but mediocre derelicts languishing in discount bookstores served as a haunting reminder of this fact.

So what makes a good children’s storybook? I decided on three essentials:

-Brevity: As a kid, I was bored to death by wordy, preachy kids’ books. I needed to boil the story down to its utter essentials: 999 words, not one more.

-Mysticism: The idea that some tiny switch can move the grand clockwork of the universe (as G.K. Chesterton would say) entrances children. Hence the success of Harry Potter, and the staying power of fairy tales. And what could be more “magical”, like a fairy tale come true, than the mystery of the Eucharist?

-Clear, beautiful illustrations: Having been spoon-fed Looney Tunes and Silly Symphonies along with my strained peas, I was annoyed as a child by poorly drawn cartoons and books. No matter how good the tale, if the pictures are carelessly executed, the story will fall flat.

In an age of excessive novelty in children’s literature, The Littlest Bread draws upon an ancient truth of our Faith: He has lifted up the lowly. I pray this book will help open young minds to the wonder and mystery of the Eucharist.