• Esther Harder

Stay Home, Self Publish?

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

The Idea

My latest book inspiration alighted on our balcony railing in late March, when we had just settled down into full stay-at-home mode due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a new parent to an infant son and a freelance editor, I had already been in stay-at-home mode, but there is a heavy feeling associated with the perception that the outings that were once available to us had been put on hold for an unknown period. Instead of blithely choosing not to go out, we were strongly encouraged not to go out, which tempts the ego to thumb its nose at the rules and do just the opposite.

An adult reads a story out their window to two children on a neighboring balcony.
Image created by Fernando Cobelo for the UN COVID-19 Response.

Egos mostly in check, we stayed in our Houston apartment and grew very grateful for our private balcony as a safe outdoor play space. Fresh air and sunlight does wonders for my sense of mind, and my little one had just started to notice birdsong and other outdoor delights.

While we spent longer and longer periods on our balcony, I noticed that we could hear our upstairs neighbor and son playing, too and could track their daily rhythms, which were similar to ours, as the children were close in age. In our apartment complex, the balconies are more like shaded porches; they don't extend beyond the building's exterior. So, while we could hear each other, we couldn't fully interact, unless we leaned over the railing and called to one another. My curiosity prickled at this scenario. What if our little ones could see each other and interact from balcony to balcony? What a perfect COVID social distancing play date that would be!

That was the start of what became Quarantine Kids, a picture book. I dove in.

The Context

Once I had the story drafted and critiqued in mid-April, a bigger question surfaced. What was I planning on doing with this story? I wasn't agented for picture books, so if I was going to submit this manuscript anywhere, it would have to be in places that accepted unsolicited work. And if I was very lucky and had my manuscript picked up, it would be months, even a year before copies would be available on shelves.

The traditional route didn't seem like a useful choice in this untraditional time. I knew it was likely that the Big Five publishers had already tagged seasoned authors to write any picture books that they planned to produce about COVID or quarantine. Or, that they were avoiding the topic altogether for a number of possible reasons, among them:

  • No one knew when quarantine or COVID would end—would a book hit the market before it was obsolete?

  • In a polarized environment where wearing a mask was politicized, it is impossible to write to the middle ground, and even harder to gauge which public opinion should be used as the target market

  • It's challenging to write about an extreme global moment in the middle of that moment; there is no chance for hindsight

These were some pretty good reasons to shelve the manuscript as a bit of creative fun. But I was intrigued by this unusual situation. Would the Big Five produce any work, more precisely, any fictional work for children about COVID? Was it possible that COVID had created a tiny production vacuum just the perfect size for me to self-publish? Was I going to jump in and do this?

Yes, I decided. I mean, what else was I doing, other than working part time and caring for an infant son full time? I could manage a book project from my balcony, couldn't I?

The Plan

Before I stepped in too deep, I sketched out my vision and goals. I had dabbled enough in the independent book design world that I knew how overwhelming the production process is, even when there's a team sharing the responsibility. In my case, I would essentially be a team of two with my illustrator. And all those many interconnected decisions would be landing on my desk.

So, my vision:

  • I would produce a hardcover picture book, as close to on par with traditional publishers as I could get from my starting point

  • I would provide a positive story that takes place in COVID times, but whose plot is relevant beyond COVID and quarantine

  • I would hire an illustrator who also knew a thing or two about picture book layout so that they could take the lead in book design, while I worked out other details of the project

The next number of posts will highlight the steps I've taken from concept through production. I am by no means an expert, but I found my way through my self-publishing decisions by looking for the signposts and articles of those who have charted this path before me, so I thought I would leave some signposts of my own for others who are considering jumping in, too.

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