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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Fitting the Illustration to the the Text: Author Interview with Billie Webb

If you've ever made up stories for your children or grandchildren and wondered if you should turn them into books, here's what one writer decided to do.

Of all the genres you could write, what drew you to writing for children? What inspired you to write the first book?
My story is a bit odd. I actually created my first children's picture book never intending to publish it at all. I like to create hand-made things, and when my sister's first child, Natalie, turned one in 2012, I felt inspired to write and draw up a silly little book for her. It was a parody referencing Dr. Seuss and other great writers. 

So I sat down with my morning coffee and wrote "There's a Froggie on My Doggie." It took me 30 minutes to write and another 3 days to illustrate.  Then I spent about 2 more days figuring out how to scan it into my computer and lay it out so I could put the pictures and the words together. I then printed it out, sewed it together with my sewing machine, created a cardboard cover, and glued the cover to the book. I actually made four copies at once so that I could give her the best of four. I kept the others for myself.

Then I realized we had four other babies in our family who were not getting books from me.  I had accidentally put myself in the awkward position of telling her, "Please do not tell anybody that I made this for your child."

So while riding in the car back home from my sister's, I quickly wrote my other four books. (It was a 2 day drive.) Back at home, I went through the tedious process of hand-building my second book, "Red Cat, Red Cat, Red Cat, Blue," in the same fashion as before: by printing it out and sewing it together. Red Cat was going to be a gift for one of my brother's sons, who was turning one!

After sharing "Red Cat, Red Cat, Red Cat, Blue" with other children, I was surprised to discover that small children (like age 2) would often laugh and giggle in the middle of the book.  I had no idea that Gage's encounter with his mother would be so funny to two year olds!

Then it finally dawned on me: I am writer for two year olds. Perhaps it's not so bad having a fan club of little children.  I realized that I should embrace who I was created to be, and I should be willing to write for them

Who encouraged you along the way?
I wrote these for my family, who have always encouraged me in my work.

Prior to writing these children’s books, what was your publishing and writing background?
When I signed up for college, my father suggested that I major in advertising.  He said something like this: "You put pictures and words together.  You have done this since you were little, so advertising is probably the career for you." It sounded right to me. And I did it.

But I ended up getting married and staying home with my kids.  Thus, my publishing experience has been largely volunteer work: I used the knowledge from my degree to create posters, advertisements, greeting cards, comics and newsletters for my family, our church, the schools, and charitable organizations in general.
Are you active in any writer critique groups?
No, I am not active in a writer's critique group, however I have been in the past, and they are wonderful!

What made you decide to self-publish? Did you try the traditional route and send out to publishers and agents?
No, I did not try traditional publishers. I decided to self publish for a variety of reasons 1) I wanted to give the children in my family better quality books than the ones I made by hand. 2) I wanted to be able to get copies of my books at any time without going through the tedious process of hand-creating them. 3) I wanted the children to be able to get copies, even if I were not around anymore 4) I thought creating professional books for the children would be a great gift that would last their entire life. 5) I did not want to take the time to try to convince a publisher to publish my books.  I had heard that they are bombarded with hundreds of books all the time and generally overwhelmed with requests, so I thought it would be more efficient to just do it myself. 6) I am very good with software, so I had the skills needed to get it done. 7) I also wanted to publish them so that other children outside of my family could read them if they wished.

What are some of the promotions that you've done for the books that have been the most successful?
I have tried a few different promotions.  The best promotion I have had is actually email promotion.  When a message can be targeted at the correct audience, the returns are bigger. 

For example, one of my books is an educational workbook for children in daycare, specifically those involved in a government program called "CACFP."  There is a CACFP conference this month, and I am a vendor: I am giving away a free book to each participant upon their arrival at the conference. The conference has not started yet, but last week the organizer sent out a pre-conference email with all of the different vendor information, which included a link to my books.  I had nearly 250 sales last week from that email.  In my opinion, that email was a pretty good promotional tool.

As an author and illustrator, how do you put together your books?
When someone reads my books (which only take about 3 minutes to read), they can see that the images tell a chunk of the story that the words alone do not express.  This is just the way I write: I doodle and write at the same time. The images and words come together at the same time. Perhaps this is the way most comic strip creators function.

What has frustrated you the most in putting these books together?
What has frustrated me the most?  Probably just generally making "dumb" mistakes that someone more seasoned would not make. For example, when I put these books out, initially I did not print age ranges on the covers or in the descriptions, and that was a big mistake. Sales increased after I added the age ranges, and my reviews got better, too.

What has pleasantly surprised you in the process?
The pleasant surprise is the positive reviews from so many people that I do not know.  I did not really expect so much support from readers.

What do you know now about publishing you wish you had known sooner?
The thing I wish I had known most about publishing is trim size. I have lost a lot sales due to the fact that my books are a hard size to display in a retail store. I chose 8.5 x 8.5, and I wish I had chosen 8 x 8.  Why? Because bookstores and retailers have lots of racks that hold 8x8, but the 8.5 x 8.5 size books just do not fit in the racks.  I still need to take the time to resize them all.  It is on my to-do list.

What advice would you give someone who wants to write children’s stories?
Before I released my books, I was told that children's literature is one the very hardest genres to break into because there are so many people doing the same thing. And this is SO true! It seems like just about everybody I talk to has an idea for a children's book. There is absolutely no shortage of ideas and excitement in this genre. 

Unfortunately I have met several people who have spent thousands (even tens of thousands!) of dollars for illustrations and layout services only to end up with "a basement full of books" that they cannot sell. 

Considering the low profit margin and the huge competition, be careful not to set your earnings expectations too high. Do the math before you bet the bank: how many books do you need to sell to break even?  You need to know that right up front.

So my advice is this: remember that this is a business.  Do not invest without a clear plan.

What is the best writing advice you've been given?
I did solicit advice from a few parents and an educator before releasing Emergency Last Tuesday at Two.  This book deals with the sensitive topic of a fire at an elementary school.  I was very worried that I would handle it incorrectly.  And the piece My School Burned Down Last Tuesday at Two.  I was told it sounded too violent.  I assume this was good advice because I have had no complaints that the book is too violent since the name change.

How much time daily do you have for writing?
I have no time for my own writing right now.  I am doing layout and illustrations for a client, which is very time consuming.  I am also working on other projects not related to writing.

What message would you like parents and children to take away from your books?
I want to encourage parents to have educational conversations with their toddlers/small children. All of my books provide many opportunities for these conversations. Here's some questions they might want to discuss with their children after reading my books:  What should you do when you find a stray cat? Why do you think the little girl tried to sit on her baby sister? How do you think Jay is feeling about losing his school to a fire?

What future plans do you have for writing?
I hope to start on another small series of children's books beginning in 2015.  I cannot divulge much about the project because it involves other people, but the series would encourage positive behavior in children and center around a particular character (perhaps similar in nature to a Curious George or a Fat Albert type series).  There is a lot of possibility for success with this project, but I haven't completely committed to it yet.

I am also under contract for some Spanish educational workbooks, but it is a very slow and relaxed project so I have no good estimate for when they will be available.

If you would like to learn more about Billie and her writing, here are some links to get you started.

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