Seven years or so ago, I wrote a picture book called Help Wanted.
It was in answer to the annoying revisionism among political conservatives, who would have us believe that a woman working outside the home is a new phenomenon. I was a children’s librarian for over a dozen years, and I know that the books you give to the very young can frame their thinking, so I set out to write a book that would address both working women and gender inequity. Yup. For children, a book about the pay gap.
I set about this carefully, choosing 1974 as the time period, because at this time it became illegal to have job ads that specified gender. I included “highlights of women workers” in the back, and found a really good illustrator, who created models by hand and sewed tiny costumes for them for every page.
I had all the things I, as a librarian, like to see in a picture book: a good protagonist , a growth story arc, vocabulary you can get through context if you don’t know the words. Even though I was alive in the 1970s I researched the time period, and although the book is fiction I knew that it was educational as well.
I self-published through Amazon, made back my investment, and was delighted that a local college professor chose to us Help Wanted in his Children’s Literature class. Thank you, Peter Marino.
And then I kind of forgot about it. You see, the book sold well enough to make back my money but was not a blockbuster. People didn’t want a feminist picture book in 2009. And I didn’t have a lot of time to market it, because, well, my husband died, and as a widow with a young child, I just couldn’t do more than what it took to take care of her.
But as I write this, seven years later, I can barely keep up with the demand for the book.
My daughter is older now, so I went to a book fair one day, sold out, printed a bunch more, and sold out again.
I’m not entirely sure what changed in the past few years to make my book popular, but these are my guesses:
-In 2015, Emma Watson came out as a feminist. Suddenly the word was more respectable.
-About the same time, my illustrator (Marika McCoola) became a New York Times bestselling author. And I wrote the first thing she ever published. People searching her name come up with my book.
It’s a pretty heady experience right now. People stop me in restaurants and thank me for writing the book. I get invited to talk at civic groups, sometimes even for money. (Even when they don’t pay me directly, I end up selling, which is nice.) And I will say that although my wonderful illustrator is what draws a lot of people to the title, others have told me that they bought a second and third copy because they really like the content. Nothing could be more rewarding for a writer.
And I’ve had to be more diplomatic. All of a sudden people were stopping me in groceries stores to congratulate me on my new book and I’d just say, “Huh? What book?” because I hadn’t written anything new. Now I say, “Thank you.”
So my advice—if you have a book in your heart, maybe scared to emerge—is this:
DO it. Do the book you want. Do the book that is in your heart and mind, because if it is important to you, it will be important to someone, some time. I was seven years ahead of the trend, which is not a bad place to be. With 350 million people or so in the USA, someone wants what you have to offer.
Do it well. Help Wanted is selling well at the moment partially because rather than getting a friend of a friend do to the pictures, I found a really good artist and paid her in advance. If you cannot afford to pay an established artist then you may have success giving a first project to an art/illustration student. As much as I like my story, the book would never have sold, even the first time, without good visuals. And “do it well” may mean doing research, even for fiction.
Get an accountant. If you are self-publishing in a state which collects sales tax, make sure you know before the end of the year what that means in terms of collecting tax on your creation. You will also want to know how to record your business expenses, even if you are not self-publishing.
I do not, at this time, plan on giving up my beloved career as a librarian for writing. I do believe that having a successful book makes me a better librarian, and I enjoy knowing that at last the subject I wrote about is recognized as important.
Now, go write your book.