Saturday, November 20, 2010

Riley and the Curious Koala Blog Tour

Today I welcome author, Tania McCartney to discuss THE PROS AND CONS OF SELF-PUBLISHING.

It seems like the success of the publication of your first Riley book took you a little by surprise.

Yes, its success has been a surprise! Mainly in regard to how well it’s been received in Australia. I actually released Riley and the Sleeping Dragon: A journey around Beijing while living in China, so my audience in Beijing was very different to home… it was a multinational expat one, along with Westernised local Chinese. The combination of a Western boy touring around China’s ancient capital was one that appealed to this large group enormously, and the book sold over 1500 copies in three months. I had to reprint twice and the book is still selling strongly in some major Chinese cities.

Being a book with such a specific market, I honestly believed Riley and the Sleeping Dragon would die a natural death when we moved home to Australia in January 2009. This was my first picture book, too, so I was not an established children’s author (I have been published in the adult non-fiction category before) and I knew that ‘cracking’ the children’s book industry would be tough. Our children’s market here is enormous, well-established and packed with talent, but nonetheless, I thought I’d give it a go.

I approached a nationwide distributor – Dennis Jones & Associates, and set about marketing the book locally (in Canberra) and online… and the rest is history. Riley and the Sleeping Dragon was featured in the ABA’s Kids Reading Guide for 2009/2010 and continues to sell strongly Australia-wide. I’m only one person, but thankfully my commitment to showcasing the book has paid off and the series has developed a bit of a cult following. The second book in the series Riley and the Dancing Lion: A journey around Hong Kong was released last year and I’m thrilled to bring Riley home this November with Riley and the Curious Koala: A journey around Sydney.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised the series has done well here – Aussies are great travellers after all, and many kids can relate to these books because they have either visited Hong Kong and Beijing, or because they harbour an innate sense of adventure.

Can you outline the reasons behind your choice of self-publication for this book and why you think Riley was so successful?

Essentially, I wrote Riley and the Sleeping Dragon as a memento for my kids – of their four years in Beijing. I have long-adored children’s books and after spending too much time just dreaming about writing one, decided to actually do it. I had lots of time on my hands and printing in China is phenomenally cheap, so I thought I’d give self-publishing a go.

I also knew I’d have a good chance of success because I was working in Beijing as a kids editor for several English language magazines, and had developed a bit of a following with my articles and family matters column. I had the audience, I had the printing means, I had the time and the passion – so I did it.

Self-publishing was surprisingly easy – after some serious research online, I found an illustrator and got to work. There were lots of mistakes and much time-wasting along the way, but in five months, I had 1000 books delivered to my door and it was truly one of the most remarkable moments of my life. It was incredibly rewarding.

Marketing and promoting the books was also relatively easy because of the profile I had developed through my magazine work. These magazines were very supportive and we created a fantastic marketing campaign that really helped get the word out. I sold out of books very quickly and even managed to get books into major booksellers.

Coming back to Australia was a different story – trying to infiltrate an already-saturated market was like standing at the base of Mt Everest, but thanks to my wonderful distributor, the internet and relentless hard work – I have succeeded to put a wee dent into the children’s book market and things are still going well. Sure, it’s frustrating at times but I’ve just never given up – and I won’t ever give up.

I’ve continued to self-publish these books because I can do it easily now – I have a glorious illustrator and printer (I print in Australia now), and the templates are all in place, so writing and producing the books is relatively straight forward and great fun.

Marketing and saturation continues to be the greatest challenge with self-publishing, but my stock continues to sell and my profile continues to rise (slowly!) thanks to Kids Book Review and Australian Women Online (where I’m a Senior Editor). It’s a slow, sometimes agonising process, but I couldn’t do anything else. I love it too much.

I think the success of the Riley series is because of my dedication and my passion for writing and the kids book scene. Oh, and I think the books are good! They’re different in that they incorporate several elements – text, illustration, photos and graphics – which really attracts kids. They’re also about travel, something I personally adore, and I think that when you write what you know and love, it has a greater tendency to succeed.

So many authors and illustrators publish or self-publish a book and then sit back and wait for it to succeed. I don’t think anyone – no matter how well-established – can rest on their laurels. Promoting and marketing your work – and yourself – is vital to market saturation, and that is something I ceaselessly work on. They say the most successful authors of the future will be those that market themselves well (on top of producing quality work, of course).

I also think the Riley series has done well because of the books’ quality. Self-publishers need to be mighty careful about quality and credibility – there is so much self-published crap and this tends to blacken the self-publishing genre – alas. This is rapidly changing, however, as more and more house-quality books are self-published and gain nationwide – even worldwide – attention.

There’s a very inaccurate belief that people resort to self-publishing because they can’t get their books published anywhere else. This may be true for a percentage of people but it is by no means the norm – I have met many successfully self-published people who never even approached a publishing house with their manuscript – myself included. There are many circumstances that lead people to self-publish and one of the main ones is that it’s so doable now. So long as you have the dedication and a commitment to quality and promotion, you can’t go wrong.

I imagine self-publishing has its own set of rewards and challenges. What have been some of the rewards and challenges that self-publishing has given you?

The rewards have been many – that feeling of achievement after endless hard work is just priceless. It’s also been wonderful to be able to associate my name with my books. Many authors and illustrators write fabulously successful books but their names can get lost amongst the book’s title and hoo-ha. Self-publishing has allowed me to expand upon and brand my name as opposed to the Riley series in itself. This is especially helpful as I write in other genres than children’s books, and am equally committed to those genres.

The other enormous reward has been the complete freedom to honour my own creative processes and choices, without having editors or publishers alter my work. Of course, this also has its cons! because a good editor is priceless. I’ve been very careful to look at my work objectively and to plan my path carefully, to minimise being too one-eyed.

Another bonus is that I can do what I want with my work – add to it, utilise it, work with it, expand upon it, without having to ask permission or follow any rules. I think being able to do this has added to the books’ success.

Earning a very large to large percentage (depending on whether I sell directly or via my distributor) from the sale of my books is also very nice.

Challenges include being only one person, having to fund everything and taking risks. But the greatest challenge, by far, is time. Publishing, printing, promoting and marketing takes up a huge amount of my creative writing time (and hair-washing time) – and this is a bug-bear I constantly battle with. I often get resentful that I can’t spend hours just writing languidly, because I have other sides of my ‘business’ to honour.

Maybe I’ll approach a publisher one day to take over the series so I can get my hair washed.

What advice would you give to other writers considering self-publishing?

Do consider it, but only if you have the time and dedication. It is truly full time work and your success would rely on a) quality of both the book’s content and production and b) your ability to market and promote.

Seek outside opinion from both children and adults. Listen to what people say but always follow your heart. Be objective about your work.

Don’t become one-eyed and do NOT expect to make much money. Self-publishing is a labour of love and if you’re in it for the money, you can forget it. This route best suits people who are passionate about the entire children’s book industry and have a love of publishing, illustrating and the entire literary scene (as I do). You will learn an enormous amount from self-publishing.

Self-publishing is not a guaranteed route to house publication. It stands alone, though any success you do achieve will certainly bring credibility to your work (if you do it well!).

As a self-publisher you must wear many hats. Put on your marketer’s hat for a moment and describe your latest Riley adventure. What do you think is the key to Riley’s continued success and following?

Riley and the Curious Koala: A journey around Sydney is the third in the Riley series of travelogue picture books for primary school children. This multimedia series combines stunning black and white photos of one of the world’s finest cities, with photographs of a real tin plane and gorgeous illustrations by Canberra artist Kieron Pratt.

Each book in the Riley series follows the adventures of this little Aussie aviator and his friends. Beginning in Beijing with his search for the sleeping dragon, the books are unique in that they combine virtual travel (via the photographs) with an adventure story that incorporates an animal associated with the destination.

The books combine history, culture and education in an almost imperceptible way. The gist of the storyline always incorporates some relatable element to the animal being searched for in each book. Sometimes these elements are literal, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes toyed with, as in the case of Riley and the Curious Koala.

The Riley series of books are different and I believe this is why they stand out and continue to do well. They are beautifully illustrated, humorous, fabulous fun and follow a tried and true story writing formula that draws children into the pages, so they can travel alongside their hero. The characters are charming, cute and totally relatable, meaning children very quickly fall in love.

In each subsequent book, the animal Riley finds becomes a ‘friend’ who then appears in the next book, in the form of a stuffed toy. This links the series in an irresistible way. Featuring a map at the end of the book that promises more adventure really hooks kids into the series, too – where will Riley travel to next? Will it be their town?

All of these above elements combine to add to the success of the Riley series. Along with my personal passion for travel, marketing and writing for children, I’m hoping the Riley books continue to entrance children for a long time to come. And in the meantime, where should Riley travel to next?

Riley and the Curious Koala is the third in the Riley travelogue series of picture books, taking young children on a journey to far flung destinations. Riley’s first adventure began in Beijing with Riley and the Sleeping Dragon, continued on through Hong Kong with Riley and the Dancing Lion, and now enters home turf, with a fun-filled adventure through the beautiful city of Sydney.

Will Riley find this terribly elusive and quite curious fluffy creature amongst the gorgeous watery vistas of one of the world’s most beautiful cities? Panda, Dragon and Lion from earlier books join this little aviator on his sensational Sydney search… and their discovery is a curious (and funny!) one, indeed.

Part of the profits for Riley and the Curious Koala will go to the Australian Koala Foundation

Thanks, Tania. All the best for the success of Riley and the Curious Koala.


  1. Tania, I've been following your blog tour, and your passion and dedication truly shine through each article I've read.

    Thanks Sue for the probing questions, and Tania for great advice about self-publishing.

  2. This was a very interesting interview, full of good advice. Plus, the books sound wonderful.

    Good luck with this one Tania. I hope the books fly off the shelves.

    By the way, where is Riley off to next?