Late last year I came across the irrepressible Tania McCartney, an Australian children’s book author and self-publisher. I was amazed at Tania’s enthusiasm and drive to succeed at publishing on her own terms. Her story inspired me and I think it will inspire you.
Tania McCartney is an Australian author who has been writing since her teens. She has been both published and self-published.
After spending four years in China, Tania released Riley and the Sleeping Dragon in 2008 – a unique multimedia travelogue picture book featuring photos of Beijing and illustrations by Mo Qovaizi. She also published Beijing Tai Tai – a hilarious memoir of blogs, magazine columns and journal entries on her time as a wife (tai tai) in China.
In November 2009, Tania released her second book in the Riley travelogue series – Riley and the Dancing Lion – which takes Riley deep into the streets of Hong Kong and Macau and features hilarious and beautiful illustrations by Canberra illustrator, Kieron Pratt. Book three, Riley and the Curious Koala: A journey around Sydney, will be released in 2010.
Tania is also an established magazine features writer, editor, book reviewer, photographer and blogger. She runs Kids Book Review and is currently a Senior Editor for Australian Women Online. She is currently working on four books including a new lifestyle book with Handmade Canberra – handmade living.
As Tania says, she “owns a husband and two children, lives in Canberra, Australia and likes books, travel, kids and mangoes. She doesn’t like papercuts nor rabbit poop.” Here’s my interview with her.
Interview with Tania McCartney
Tania, can you tell us how you originally got into self-publishing?
I was living on post in Beijing with my family and was fortunate to have a lot of spare time on my hands. Having 20 years of writing experience behind me, I contacted some local expat magazines that focused on kids and family, and ended up as either a kids editor, columnist or features writer for four of them.
Having an obsession with children’s books, I had always dreamed of writing my own. Combined with the extra hours I had on my hands, the phenomenally cheap printing and the marketing prospects as a relatively well-known magazine columnist, I took the plunge and self-published Riley and the Sleeping Dragon: A journey around Beijing mid-2008. It was surprisingly easy. A lot of work! but surprisingly straightforward to do. In fact, the hardest part was not the self-publishing per se, but rather the post-production marketing and promotion.
Riley and the Sleeping Dragon is essentially a travelogue for pre- and elementary school children, featuring black and white photos of Beijing, photographs of a toy tin plane, illustrations and graphics.
The book became an overnight sensation and I sold out of two print runs in three months – mainly to local English-speaking expats.
Your Riley books are heavily illustrated books for children. How did you learn to manufacture them?
I just researched a lot. I used the internet and spoke about it a lot with people, who always had their two cents to put in. I sought a printer, illustrator, someone to provide ISBNs and barcodes, and easily found information on the requirements of self-publishing, such as national library requirements and listing books with Global Books In Print.
The most astounding learning curve of all, however, was that each time I took a step forward and just got on with it, things would unfold before me, almost miraculously. Once you start with the momentum and refuse to give up, everything you need appears.
Do you do your own book design and production, or do you use professionals to help put the books together?
Yes, I do all my own book design, typesetting, layout, even the graphics for the first book. I create print-ready files and fulfill all the practical requirements required to ‘publish’. I also did all the marketing, promotion and distribution for the first book in China and when I returned to Australia, one of our top national distributors took the book on straight away, which eased the workload for me, and made the book available Australia-wide. They now distribute three of my books and will distribute two more by the end of the year.
The only professionals I utilize are my illustrator and the printing company. I use an Australian printing company now.
I see that you’ve branched out into collateral products to accompany the books. How is that working out? Do you feel these products will become an important profit center for you?
These collateral products are just a little bit of fun and are a marketing tool rather than a profit centre. I use them mainly for school visits and events. I am involved in a very successful market, shop and publishing enterprise called Handmade Canberra, which runs a huge handmade market and recently opened an enormously successful retail outlet in our nation’s capital. I sell my books at this shop and market and designed some gorgeous paperdolls and paperdoll magnet sets, cards and pencil rolls to sell for local kids who are a bit Riley-addicted. The products do well but I have no plans to take them global. Well, not yet anyway!
Can you share with readers what kind of costs are involved in bringing one of your books to market?
My costs in China were considerably less, naturally, but in Australia it’s relatively affordable so long as you’re willing to put in the time and energy needed to recoup your outlay. It costs around AU$7000 (about US$6000) to print 2000 32-page full-colour, perfect bound pictures books in Australia, and that is only printing costs. Other publishing costs such as ISBN and barcodes are incidental, but when you factor in postage, software, freebies for marketing purposes, travel, advertising and promotion and other related costs (let alone giving yourself a wage!), you will begin to understand this is a labour of love, not a get-rich scheme.
With careful planning, print-run balancing, hard work and endless promotion, I have made all my money back and then some – it’s not made me rich yet but the joy I get when people say they love my books… well – that is priceless. And I am doing what I love. Also priceless.
I also believe that once I become even more established, I will be able to have more books out, earning more money overall. I also have three manuscripts currently in negotiation with major publishers (I have been published by a major publisher before) so handing over some of the load to them will free me to create more rather than focus on production and marketing.
Are there special challenges you face being based in Australia? Do you sell internationally?
Australians are some of the biggest readers, per capita, in the world – we purchase and enjoy an enormous ratio of books compared to most other countries. Alas, there is only 21 million of us, and although we’re voracious for books, the sales market is small. There’s also lots of competition – not only because we have a raft of home-grown talent but because we import and enjoy books from all over the world.
I would love to sell internationally but alas, Amazon.com, one of the largest companies in the world, cannot pay international authors (Paypal, anyone?). You need a US bank account. If someone can explain that to me, I’ll be a very happy author because it still confounds me.
What would you say was your biggest challenge when you were getting started as a self-publisher?
Nothing. It was a breeze for me. I knew in my heart I could do it and nothing would get in my way. When we moved home to Australia, I knew my biggest challenge would be market saturation and distribution. The latter part was easily taken care of but the saturation remains a challenge, only because there’s just one of me and I am also a mum and need to cook dinner and occasionally wash my hair! I still continue to promote and market as much as possible, with school visits and readings, and I’ll be going on my first book tour in September, so I don’t really see all this as so much of a challenge as it is time-consuming. Perhaps Time is my greatest challenge. And patience. That’s a challenge for me.
Tania, as you know well, the hardest part of self-publishing for most authors is marketing and sales. How have you approached these essential tasks?
Absolutely, marketing and sales is the hardest part of the self-publishing route. I don’t find it easy to sell but I do find it easy to market, and my sales have been good as a result.
I blog, I set up a great website, I attend and create events, have giveaways and support charities by doing free readings or donating books. I set up Kids Book Review which markets and reviews books for other authors, and this helped me develop a great promotional relationship with most of Australian’s major and indie publishers. I have since sent a manuscript to two of them.
I also visits schools, libraries, attend Book Week and have approached schools with educational courses and presentations that have related to my work as an author. I have approached book festivals and conferences about presenting and hope to attend my first as a presenter next year. I’m a member of the Children’s Book Council of Australia and I get involved with as many of their events as I can.
I find networking with other authors and illustrators both vital and personally rewarding, for a myriad of reasons – via Facebook, Twitter, blogging. I have approached a national distributor (who now carries all my books) and also approach local bookstores about carrying my books or hosting/holding events and launches. I also get involved in the events held by other authors or publishers.
What about publicity, have you found ways to make use of press attention to sell more books?
Being involved with Handmade Canberra has really helped boost my profile. I also network with a local businesswomen’s group and have made contacts who help promote me there. I have approached other author and literary blogs about being interviewed and have been featured in the local media countless times – on radio, newspapers and magazines. I simply approach them directly with news like book launches or other events or new releases, and have got to know them well, so new books are always well promoted.
I think it also helps that I am an experienced editor and magazine writer/blogger. I write a good press release and always feature photographs and graphics that are eye-catching. For my book launches, I organize sponsors to provide a venue, food, treats and entertainment. I fill the place with helium balloons and really make it spectacular for the kids and always get a huge turnout. The sponsors are happy because of the numbers and because I plug them. They also provide giveaways so everyone is happy.
Children’s authors need to have a really professional, beautiful website. They need creative business cards, great signatures on their emails and perhaps a few handouts like great bookmarks or colouring in pages of their book characters.
I know this sounds like a given but trust me, I review plenty of self-published books and it’s NOT a given… self-published authors need to produce excellent, major-publishing-house-quality books because anything less will bomb. Oh, and the books also need to be good, ie: well written and beautiful. Anyone interested in cutting corners or publishing for money or ego should give up now.
I think if you just get creative and spend the time making any media exposure beautiful and clever, publicity doesn’t have to cost a lot. I NEVER pay to advertise. NEVER. I am into contra-deals or giveaways and they have always worked beautifully for me.
Would you be willing to share your sales figures with readers, I’m sure they would be very interested.
Now this is terrible, but even I don’t know my sales figures. I am so right-brained creative, I hardly keep a financial record, much to my CPA husband’s utter disdain. When I can afford an accountant, I’ll send you my figures!
Nonetheless, what I can tell you is that when I sell my books directly, I make between $9 and $11 a copy, and each copy costs around $4 to print. When I sell through my national distributor, I make about $2 a copy but that’s approx what you’d get from a publishing house, so it doesn’t worry me too much, and the market saturation and promotion is worth every cent. I just try to sell as many as I can directly!
I often hear from people who want to publish children’s books, about which I have little expertise. Can you say anything specific to this market that might help these prospective publishers?
I think it’s so important to understand that you need to build a ‘brand’ if you want to rise above every other author out there penning books for children. If you want to self-publish, you have to understand the marketing side as well as the sales side. They go hand-in-hand but fundamentally speaking, earning clear money is a bonus until you can become really established, and becoming really established takes clever marketing, excellence and sheer tenacity.
I get so tired of self-published authors just sitting back and waiting for the money to roll in or just selling from their website and doing nothing to push their ‘brand’. You need saturation and promotion and exposure, and every cent you earn should go into making that happen, even if it means giving away books and taking a loss.
You can have the luxury of banking something once you’ve achieved market success, and this could take a very long time – but a shorter time if you focus on those three essentials – marketing, excellence and tenacity.
Finally, Tania, would you offer a few tips for people just getting started self-publishing children’s literature?
Just do it. Don’t talk about it. Do it. And watch everything unfold beautifully. Take one step then the next and keep on going. Research. A lot. Ask questions. Get feedback of your manuscript from kids, teachers, librarians, friends. Listen to their advice and act on what your gut says is right.
Network with other like-minded people. Don’t pester, just mention. Be polite. Ask nicely. Offer something back. Never expect anything. Be clever, aware, creative. Think outside the square. Do things differently.
Get into schools, libraries, writing associations, children’s literary associations and groups. Be passionate. Inspired. Talk to kids. Give them your energy and drive and creativity. But most of all – I shall repeat my mantra… do everything with excellence at all times. Be prepared to market your heart out, and hold onto your tenacity with both hands.
I want to thank Tania for spending some time telling her amazing self-publishing story. Her enthusiasm and passion for promoting her books is contagious. If you’d like to find out more, here are her links:
Tania’s website and blog
Kids’ Book Review
Handmade Living Canberra
Australian Women Online
For people interested in Tania’s books, there’s a fabulous website called Booko which sources books available in Australia.
Here are the links to Tania’s books on Booko:
Riley and the Sleeping Dragon
Riley and the Dancing Lion
Beijing Tai Tai