This self-publishing success story is brought to you by Claire Culliford. Claire is a children’s book author whose stories help educate children about the environment. Her books are available worldwide and have been translated into over 20 languages.
I had a dream. I dreamed of helping young children across the globe create a better world for themselves through the power of story. I dreamed of a series of books which would inspire them to creatively solve the environmental and social problems we all face as inhabitants of our planet. I dreamed of children being united by their ability to read this same set of books in a language that they can understand.
And I dreamed that when children are 30, 40 or 50 and the politicians, scientists, teachers and parents of tomorrow, they would remember these stories and the difference they inspired them to make in the world. Seven years ago, I started writing the book series. Today, the dream is becoming a reality.
"A Book, A Bond, A Better World" was the title I gave to my dream. My books are all written to support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. A Book, A Bond, A Better World now exists in the form of an annual online event on United Nations Day, 24th October each year.
The journey toward my self-publishing success has been a long and challenging one, full of trial and error, but most importantly lots of fun. The story behind the stories is one involving a wonderful international team that has developed along the way, and the skills and generosity it has provided to help me create a global brand.
I hope sharing some of the key lessons we’ve learned will help those starting out in the world of self-publishing and those with their own international writing aspirations.
Tips for Self-Publishing Success
Identify a proven need
As a writer, translator and teacher, I have had the privilege of working with children and young adults from across the world throughout my career. I have also, sadly, borne witness to lots of suffering as a result of teenagers and adults not having been exposed to positive messages and environments in early childhood.
During a project involving requests from governments, I became aware of the lack of storybooks for young children that deal with real life environmental and social issues in a fun, fictional and formative way. And more importantly, I noticed the lack of a global brand that does this and is instantly recognisable to children everywhere. Every writer, indeed every human being, knows that uplifting stories can have an effect on us like nothing else.
It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, that one autumn day, back in 2012, Hector and his story about cleaning up litter and helping the elderly came to me as I was out walking. I saw a pile of leaves strewn with rubbish, noticed a little hedgehog rolled up beside it, and the first tale was born.
Within a couple of weeks, the next two characters materialised. Tyler’s story is about keeping our oceans clean and helping the homeless, and Penny’s story is about preventing the polar ice caps from melting and the importance of community. The characters and their stories found me, not vice versa, so I knew instinctively that these were the books I was meant to write.
I therefore sought out the right children’s illustrator, a recent graduate from an illustration degree course. She helped me produce the first book and brought Hector to life exactly as I’d imagined him. Thanks to the wonders of self-publishing, I was then able to get his story out to the world via lulu.com and Amazon KDP.
Share your aims
When I told my translation colleagues around the world what I hoped to do, they read the book and started asking if they could translate it. When I told my colleagues in education of my plan, they enabled me to visit schools and libraries with the story, so that I could get feedback. Everyone told me that what I was writing was wanted. They told me it was needed. So I kept on writing.
In 2015, I published the second story. And the same group of translators asked if they could translate that book too. So they did, during 2016 and 2017.
Get constant feedback and research extensively
As the translators translated, I carried on taking the books out to read with children. Whilst reading them with hundreds of children, I started to identify which aspects of the stories gained the response and made amendments accordingly.
I also used this information to help me plan the structure and content of the next couple of books, which I had begun writing.
In March 2017, whilst having some fun on social media at London Book Fair with my book characters, one of the organisers of Frankfurt Book Fair saw what I was trying to do. She suggested I bring the series to Frankfurt. I succeeded in getting the third book published in time for the Fair that year.
Fortune smiled on Hector, Tyler, Penny and me. Not only did I get to introduce the books to people from many countries around the world, we got to exhibit opposite Harper Collins. Their team were extremely kind, generous and supportive and offered lots of advice.
They commented on things like the illustrations and which markets they thought they might perform best in. They also told me that they really liked the paper books that I had created and had printed especially for the Fair. They encouraged me to continue, telling me they thought the stories and the series idea was a good one.
I was made to feel like what I was doing mattered. And Harper Collins put me in touch with other publishing contacts as well so I could get yet more feedback. They made me fall in love not only with the book industry internationally, but with the people in it. They are positive, personable and passionate about what the power of story can achieve.
In my experience, they also exemplify the very message that runs throughout my book series: looking after others and the environment around you - and using your creativity to solve problems - helps make the world a better place. They inspired me to keep pursuing my dream.
Act creatively in response to feedback
It took a year to implement all the lessons I learned in Frankfurt. I had thought ebooks were a good option for environmental children’s books, and indeed they are. But distribution through as many online stores as possible is essential.
Self-publishing via Lulu.com and Amazon KDP is a laborious process requiring different logins, front end interactions and ebook formats. So I decided to re-publish all of my books with PublishDrive. I had met the company’s CEO, Kinga Jentetics, at Frankfurt Book Fair.
What PublishDrive as a company was aiming to do for independent authors resonated with me entirely. They had creatively solved the very problem I was having. Their support and assistance (both personal and technical) over the past two years has been incredible. I believe in long-term relationships and know I will have one with PublishDrive.
That first visit to Frankfurt also left me convinced that producing paper books in the most environmentally friendly way possible is the future of publishing. So as the translators translated the third book, I worked on developing a paper book format that is environmentally friendly in every way - from production technique to size to the paper on which they are printed. (And that’s FSC paper not recycled, because the carbon footprint is generally lower!)
I also wanted to ensure my books are sold at a cost that makes them as accessible as possible worldwide (to parents, teachers and those buying the books for children). The ebooks are very competitively priced in the markets they are sold in. However, I determined that a specification would be needed which could be sent to printers anywhere in the world to avoid international shipping costs on paper books. This enabled the price the end customer pays to be considerably reduced.
Do things differently
All the while, I continued to submit the series to traditional publishers and literary agents. I received more than my fair share of rejections, albeit very positive ones. I was told in nearly every response that they really liked the books; however, they fell under both education and fiction – educational fiction, if you will.
That’s a genre that isn’t generally recognised. Yet the audience, including the young children I read the stories to, kept telling me that they wanted what I was writing. So I carried on and determined that I would keep self-publishing to show people that educational fiction works.
A dream is a dream, and you shouldn’t ever let a few obstacles get in your way! As a result, and as time has gone by, I have learned more and more that self-publishing offers so many benefits for writers who want to be truly creative in every way.
Market, market, market!
In 2018, having already visited an enormous number of schools, libraries and independent bookshops, I added holiday parks to my list of venues to visit. It turns out children love hearing stories whilst outside in nature.
I also established relationships with environmental and conservation entities so we could mutually support and advertise each other’s work.
In January 2019, I succeeded in getting the English and Spanish paper versions of the book series stocked at Waterstones in the UK. Some writers may not be aware that you can purchase ISBNs for your books from the relevant international provider, Nielsen in my case. Then you can establish a distribution agreement with the appropriate company (Gardners, for example) and have your books reviewed by leading bookstores such as Waterstones and Barnes and Noble.
If they like them, they will take them. I have been extremely fortunate and Waterstones, liking the books from the start, have been remarkable with their support. I had my first book event at the store where I live in May 2019.
By the end of the summer I had visited Waterstones stores all over the UK, including the flagship Waterstones store in London Piccadilly. I have now been invited to launch the fourth book in the series at Waterstones stores in the UK.
I also started to investigate Amazon Print on Demand more thoroughly this year, discovering that it has a requirement for a minimum number of pages. To meet this, I calculated that if I added in some of the educational resources I had developed, then the books would contain the right number of pages. So the books in their English, Spanish and French versions we published via that route earlier this year.
I trial each book extensively with the target audience before it is published. And during this time, all sorts of resources are created, from songs, to environmental and social art, to creative writing. I incorporate anything that is fun and enables children to engage with the themes covered the stories. The topics in the books may be serious ones, but it’s vital that children feel positive about solving them in innovative, enjoyable ways.
Develop associated media to grow your brand
I have now written many more stories in the series, so when the topic of animation came up, it seemed the logical way to go. Over the last couple of years, I have been privileged to work with an amazing animator and a group of songwriters to enable us to produce a pilot animation.
As a result, an animated TV series based on the books is now going to be developed in the UK with the aim of distributing it globally.
Say yes to unexpected opportunities
On hearing about developments with the series, the wonderful organisers at Frankfurt Book Fair invited us back to present on it this year. All those who work at the Fair are powerful exponents of the purpose behind the series. I often say ‘us’ and ‘we’, rather than ‘I’, because Team Hector is constantly growing. I even take some of the members with me wherever I go!
Stuffed animals based on Claire's characters, Penny and Tyler
Offer help to everyone, everywhere you go, in any way you can
Whilst at Frankfurt Book Fair this year, I was approached by many new and young writers asking for help. I tried to offer up all the relevant experience and advice I could. One of the many privileges of having some success is that you are in a position to help others working hard to try and achieve their own goals.
The quantity of thanks I received was at some points overwhelming and I was told that the same level of support wasn’t offered from every quarter. This made me realise just how easy it is for people to forget what it feels like when you are starting out as a writer.
I live by Walt Disney’s adage: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” To anyone working towards their own dreams, however, I would simply say: “Don’t forget to help everyone else work towards theirs.”
Sharing your knowledge and skills is every bit as gratifying as developing them. Being able to contribute in your own way to the communities to which you belong provides the ultimate feeling of success and simply helps everyone achieve their own dreams.
To echo this point, a few weeks ago an accomplished writer and director from Los Angeles, whose work and ethos I hugely admire, contacted me. He’d seen my Instagram posts about the series and asked if I might be able to offer some assistance with his own children’s book. Having spent the last few years working on another dream of mine - an animated screenplay about animals helping to protect the planet – I now believe more than ever that Walt Disney was right!
Investigate foreign markets
This year I have been granted funding to help take the book series even further afield. I am attending the Chinese Children’s Book Fair in Shanghai, having been invited to participate as part of the International Visitor’s Programme.
The Chinese children’s book market is the largest in the world, and they are one of the few countries to have met most of their environmental targets for 2020. Having the Chinese translations of the books already completed meant we simply had to register the copyright before taking them over there to speak to publishers and distributors.
A quick note from PublishDrive: did you know you can reach foreign markets like China through PublishDrive’s global distribution network? Sign up today to reach hard-to-access stores around the world!
Collaborate wherever possible
My colleagues in education around the world have been immensely supportive. The books are designed to be holistic, combining key environmental and social issues, fiction with fact, and language, number, geography and science.
The book series has started to be used by the Cervantes Institute and the British Council for CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning). They are also used by German Saturday Schools in the UK. A pilot is underway in the UK to use the books for language learning in primary schools. This year, we have also been invited to Embassies in London to read the books at events in their translated versions. And we have had dealings with UN Environment and UNESCO, both of whom have been extremely supportive.
In the first half of 2019, we went on a European tour, taking the books to locations in Belgium and Spain and across the UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve of La Palma in the Canary Islands. I’ve read the books in French, Spanish, German and Brazilian Portuguese with children who speak all of these languages – something that is an immense privilege as an author.
One thing is a constant: Every child, in every language, is equally passionate about looking after the world around them and those who live in it.
Edit with your target audience in mind
The fourth book in the series was published in early October 2019, ready to launch at Frankfurt Book Fair. It has built on all the knowledge acquired when publishing the first three books in the series. Now we involve children at every stage of the editing and final production process.
We want to ensure that the books meet every need specified by the target audience. So, whilst the illustrations mostly include animals and nature, we make sure, for example, that any humans include a representative mix of people of different ages, races, genders and abilities.
We have also launched the first braille versions of the series in Frankfurt. And we are working on visual recordings of the stories for the deaf and hard of hearing. Never before has the world been more aware of the need for inclusivity. Good books need to cater to diversity and be accessible to all.
Expand on what’s working
At the start of 2020, the paper books will reach Barnes and Noble in the United States, and we will be undertaking a US tour. We will also be taking the books to South America.
The fifth and sixth books in the series will be published in 2020 and four more are being edited. We have built a global brand in which collaboration is key. So much more can be achieved when working in a team with others who share a passion and can contribute their own unique talents.
Hector, his friends and I are looking forward to having many more travel companions join us as we travel around the world. We continue to work hard every day to make our vision a reality, because it’s the journey, and not the destination, that is the best part of any dream.
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