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Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Engage Your Readers and Buyers: Author Interview with Erin & Kent Barnard

Today's interview features two authors who work as a team to create picture books for children. I hope you'll enjoy reading both sides of their story.

What made you decide to start writing picture books?
Erin: I've always loved drawing and writing stories. I created my first picture book on my own when I was six in the first grade. My first degree was in Animation, so you can see the resemblance between the two. Picture books are like an animated feature - just compressed into 32, 40, 48 pages.

Kent:  I grew up in a reading house, even though we read a lot of comic books, we also read virtually everything else around.  While working at a big book store in Cincinnati, I met Loren Long, we talked each time he'd come in, and I got the itch to write a picture book. I was doing the Storytimes each week, and loved reading to the kids so how hard could it be?  *(that answer is below!)  Many years later, I was inspired by one of my Storytime kids to write Mom Needs a Dinosaur!  (He is now a sophomore in high school!)

As a husband and wife team, how do you go about writing, editing, and formatting?
Erin: This is a very involved question! I will try to make this short, for your sake [you're welcome]! Kent wrote Mom Needs a Dinosaur! and I did the rest. For the Rhino & Dino series, I'll usually have an idea how a manuscript will end, but I start at the beginning and work myself through. I find that I know the characters so well, that I know exactly what each would say in the given circumstance. This makes writing for them very easy! 

Then I'll start drawing in the same way, from beginning to end. Again, knowing the characters means I know how they'll act and react so drawing that is easier than characters I wouldn't know. Probably 90% of the drawings you see are the first ones I did. Occasionally I'll try drawing a different pose or exaggerating my first drawing even more to make it funnier. 

 I always save the covers for last. By the time the book is done on the inside, I will know what is best to represent it on the outside. For editing, I brush the story with a fine-toothed comb many times throughout the process and Kent will go over it a few times for me as well — which is terrific because he catches little things that I miss. After that, I'll send the draft to a few people in my life that are really good at giving me honest feedback. With their input, Kent and I go over it again until it's just right. For formatting, I have created templates the size of each book's cover and interior pages that allot for things like the spine, hinges, foldover, bleed and safety margins.

Kent: Since I have a full-time library director job, Erin has been amazing at doing all of it!  I do some editing, mostly she bounces things off of me and I give an opinion, but Erin is a real workhorse!  We could not have come this far without her ability to learn new things (as frustrating as that has sometimes been!).

You publish as an indie author. How much of the book do you do yourself? 
Erin: We do everything except print the books. We don't have or pay anyone as staff - it's just Kent and I mainly... but my mom, Terri, our friend Linda, and Kent's daughter, Kate, are great at helping us sell.

Kent:  Erin should really say she does everything.  I worked in sales as one of my jobs over the years, so that helps.  When I retire, I will be able to help out a lot more, especially on sales and marketing, it takes a lot of face time to get into bookstores, and we do the delivering ourselves. 

What was the hardest part of putting together your books?

Erin Doing all of it myself. It can be a lot of pressure. Would I be happy to get an agent to shop manuscripts around for me and editors that have handfuls of people to do the formatting so that I can just author/illustrate stories? You bet! I'd be ecstatic! But until then, I love doing what I do so I just keep doing it.  

Kent:  There was a lot of learning about writing and rewriting and rewriting (ad infinitum).  Every single word in a picture book has to be the right word, the best word you can use.  Even when we went to publish the second edition of Mom Needs a Dinosaur!, I changed a word, because when I read it out loud at Storytimes, I always used that word, not the one in the book!

What’s the best encouragement you’ve had from readers?
Erin: That kids who adore series like the Elephant & Piggie books love our Rhino & Dino books even more and read them over and over. In some cases, every night. It's also encouraging when parents tell me that their children learned to read using my books.

Kent:  My librarian peers tell me that kids love our books and parents tell me their kids want the same book read to them over and over.  So many kids (and adults) love dinos - and they know more now than I did at their age!  When Erin draws them, she makes them correct anatomically because she knows kids will notice!!

Marketing is the biggest key to getting sales. What is the best marketing source you've used that has produced more sales rather than just clicks?
Erin:Talking to people. Particularly Kent and Terri. Both are extremely personable and likeable people and this is great for selling books. Word of mouth by parents who love our books to other parents and friends too.

Kent: Word of mouth so far, but we will be making a concerted effort to get out there and visit indie sellers when I retire.

What do you know now about publishing you wished you had known sooner? 
ErinThat most of the companies that write book reviews like the New York Times and Kirkus charge a lot of money for their reviews and that some don't even allow Indie books for consideration - only the biggest couple of publishing houses. So readers may think they're finding out which books are the best, but they're really not because the results are skewed.

Kent:  There is still a huge stigma that self-published books are not quality books.  Unfortunately, in many cases this is true.  We found out, when we did Mom Needs a Dinosaur!, that the quality of print on demand picture books is not where we need it to be - so we make sure we get a good printer with quality paper and always hardcover, they're just better.  Another big problem is distribution.  We have found that some of the big distributors do not want anything to do with self-published works.  I understand where they are coming from, but one of the first things we hear at a bookstore is "Is it in Ingram?"  We have to answer no, but we tell them we are only an hour, or two away, and we can replenish them that day, if they need it.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received or could give?
Erin: If you think you're going to start writing picture books because they're small and easy... don't. Picture books are deceivingly difficult to put together. Since they're only a few hundred words, each word is vital. You will agonize over every single word. Ensure that each word is working the hardest that it can for you. Is it the best word that you can use? Is there a better word? A funnier word? Can you shorten up the sentence? Can you delete it and show it in the illustrations instead?

From an illustrator's point of view, don't contact an illustrator to do your illustrations until after your manuscript is finished, proofed and edited like crazy to the best of your ability, and the most polished that it can be. Otherwise you look like a rookie and you're wasting their time. Is that the way that you want to start a work relationship? Sure, you'll find someone to illustrate for you, but they won't be a professional and the work will be subpar. If you don't care about making your story awesome, why should they? Your project will just be a paycheck to them.

 And if you're a writer planning on getting an agent and publishing your book through a publisher, don't even hire an illustrator. The editors will hire an illustrator whose style they want to see matched with your story. This is their job. It's up to them. The exception is if you're an author/illustrator. Just please be honest with yourself. If you're not that great at drawing, leave 'em out of your submission and just turn in the words. But if you're an awesome artist, by all means, submit your book with both.

Kent:  "Edit, rewrite, repeat.  Then set the book aside.  Then do it again. Until it's the best gosh darn book it can be."  Jerry Apps told me that during one of our talks at our library, which is in his hometown. 

It's best to find a critique group who will look at your work and give you honest critiques of your work like friends, family, librarians , teachers, etc.

Always save every copy you have made. I have a book which I liked.  Then I got disillusioned with it and scrapped it to start over.  After trying to start again, I realized the first couple drafts weren't bad, but I had lost them.

Are there any other points about writing you would like to add? 
Erin: There is no wrong way to write. Everyone has a different method. Do what works for you... and keep at it! The more you write, the better you'll get!

Kent:  Loren Long told me after reading a book I wrote: "What people don't understand is that when an author writes a book, and it's assigned to an illustrator - that book is now just as much the illustrator's as it is the author's."  He told me that because I wrote that book like a screenplay, thinking the illustrator needed to know every detail.  They don't.

What is the next book coming out? Can you give me some details? 
ErinI have 2 unpublished picture books finished, another fully drawn out that I'm coloring, rough drafts of a chapter book and a graphic novel, and many notebooks filled with manuscripts and ideas. One is a very interactive picture book that I've already tested out on some classes. The kids cracked up so I hope it comes out next! (You didn't hear this from me, but there's a drawing of the main character on my secret page on our website). Subscribe to our newsletter by writing us at! This is the easiest way to find out what is coming next!

Kent:  We have several things in the works, Erin has a couple of books ready to print, and more after that.  We haven't decided which direction to go in, since we have a lot of books in our house to sell!

That's all for today's interview. If you'd like to learn more about their books, start with these links. 

Here's a bonus for my readers. Leave a comment on this post and I'll pick one winner to get a PDF copy of  Rhino & Dino Snazzy Jazzy Activity Booklet? A winner will be chosen next Tuesday. 

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