SPS-255: Launching a Children’s Book without Breaking the Bank – with Matthew Ralph

Launching a children’s book isn’t easy. Usually, an indie author uses Amazon and Facebook ads to target the actual readers of their book, but, when their audience consists of children, things can get a little more complicated. When you factor in the cost of getting illustrations done, things can get pretty expensive, too.

However, this week’s guest, Matthew Ralph, is here to explain how he found success as an indie author of children’s books. He also discusses the best (and cost-effective) ways of promoting a book where your readers aren’t your ad audience – definitely important listening for anyone thinking about tackling one of the trickier genres.

Show Notes

  • An update on the issue with Audible audiobook returns
  • Also an update on Hello Books
  • Receiving book ideas in unexpected places
  • Finding an illustrator for a children’s picture book
  • Using Canva to format the book with text and illustrations
  • Approaching mom influencers to read the book and leave a review
  • Expanding from books to merchandise, other languages, and personalized books
  • Leveraging skills used in self-publishing to help others
  • James mentions this SPS episode with Terri Tatchell also about children’s books

Resources mentioned in this episode:

PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page

DOWNLOAD: Matt has created a free download with all his tips and tricks for writing and publishing a children’s picture book

MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.


SPS-255: Launching a Children's Book without Breaking the Bank - with Matthew Ralp

Voiceover: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show.

Matt Ralph: You just have to make sure you are constantly pushing things out and keeping on with the advertising and the marketing. Soon as you take your foot off the pedal, then you see the Amazon Best Seller rating, that just plummets as soon as you're not pushing the needle very quickly.

Voiceover: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. If you want to make a living from your writing, join in the best seller Mark Dawson and first-time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's been never a better time to be a writer.

James Blatch: Hello and welcome. It's the Self-Publishing Show on a Friday with James Blatch.

Mark Dawson: And Mark Dawson not in focus.

James Blatch: I do wonder if you need a key light like the Hollywood actresses from the 1930s who brought their own key lights to sets. That worked best for them. Maybe a silk stocking over the lens, vaseline on the lens.

Mark Dawson: I'm not in focus at all. If you're watching this on YouTube, hopefully, the camera will come over here and maybe it'll pick me up. That's better. There we go. I'll just hide under the microphone. Much better.

James Blatch: I have tweaked my own focus recently because John, the editor, was pointing out it does a lot of hunting for the right focus, but I've redone where it is now the middle of the screen. You don't want to make it too wide, the focus area.

Mark Dawson: No one's interested in this, James. Even I'm not interested in that.

James Blatch: I reckon people are listening to this thinking this is why I'm listening to Self-Publishing Show for tips on videography.

Okay. We've got to talk a couple of things this week. We want to talk about children's books, which is great, but also just about self-publishing dissemination and sorting it out and getting things right in the right way and making a success of it with our interviewee.

We talked about the Audible issue last week, which is where Audible allowed multiple returns from readers, and authors weren't necessarily being paid for these or weren't being paid if they'd been returned. Actually just after we recorded, about three or four days after we recorded it, there was some movement from Amazon on this issue, was there not Mark?

Mark Dawson: Yeah. There was. I'm still getting my head around it a little bit. I don't have the full facts on this, but there was a response by Amazon to a letter that was sent by various trade organisations, Society of Authors, Equity I think over here. We've got quite a few people involved now.

Audible's position is that authors will be paid unless the book is returned within seven days. I think that's the gist of it, which certainly it's a step in the right direction. I don't think there's still any kind of clarity on how many returns are being made, because it's a net figure that's seen in the report. It's quite hard to work out what the split is between sales in and returns out.

There are some other things as well that are still bubbling away. It is something that's worth looking at, but it's I think a good first step from Audible to bring things into line a bit more with what we see when it comes to eBooks, but hopefully, there'll be a bit more movement as the days go on.

James Blatch: Yeah. A first step in the right direction. We don't always do newsy-type items on this. I did notice someone actually the other week said you should do more news at the front, but one of the reasons we don't do it, it's exactly what happened in the last week. We're recording this the Friday ahead of the Friday it's going, so it's seven days, eight days really Friday to Friday and things change. If you do news, you've got to basically do it that day or the day before.

Typically, when we had a little chat about Audible, something happened and changed. But Facebook Groups are the place to go. There's a dedicated Facebook Group on this subject, there's 20BooksTo50K, there's SPF Community, which is obviously the premiere Facebook Group for self-publishing authors, and you can chat and discuss issues pertinent to our world.

What else we're going to talk about, Mark? We have soft-launched in the background, half launched Hello Books. Hello Books is going to be a reader focused on service, issuing emails each week genre-specific to readers on the genres that they choose of free and discounted books. We are building that reader list now, and we've had quite a good start, haven't we?

Mark Dawson: Pretty good, yeah. We've got a guy called Arnas, who we've worked with before with SPF, who's really, really good at Facebook Ads. He's helping us run these campaigns. We've got quite a few campaigns running now. I think there are right now about 15 or 16 different variations for different genres. We've picked some authors, who submitted their books for effectively free advertising. Their books are perma-free or they've been put down to free four, five days if they're in Select.

We're advertising those reasonably heavily to, first of all, to test that our systems are working and to start to build lists and to start finding readers. It is going quite well. We've had a thriller so far. We've had couple of romance. We've got sci-fi and fantasy going out today. We're just trying to find the audiences and build our own audience, so that we can then start to do things like lookalikes and things like that, which is likely to be effective sources of readers for us that we can grow at scale.

But we're not going to unveil this for a little while yet. We're still beavering away in the background to make sure that the actual website is effective and the email distribution system that you've put together works so that readers get the kind of books that they want. But we'll mention this in a bit more detail later on, because it's quite a big deal. We think we might spend about £100,000 this year on advertising to start to build this list up. It's a pretty significant undertaking for us, but we're quite excited about how it's looking so far.

James Blatch: Yeah. I think the first 12 months will be a good time as authors to get involved in this, because we are putting money into this. We need it to be successful and not necessarily profitable in that first year. We're going to be pumping Facebook Ads into the deals every week. You'll get effectively free advertising. That's certainly what's happening at the moment with our early volunteers.

Hopefully, they're having as good a time as I've had this week on a free deal for our Robert Storr's Revelation 00:06:33 book. We did 400 downloads yesterday, which I was really pleased about. There was a coincidence of probably being Thanksgiving and people being at home and idly having a look online.

I've also noticed a real increase in the value of Facebook Ads in the last couple of days, which I guess is probably the end of the Black Friday advertising, but I've picked up a few leads yesterday, one of the campaigns at £0.11, which I was really pleased about. Best I've seen for quite a while actually. I don't know if you've seen the same, but Hello Books is obviously doing quite well at the moment.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. This is good. Very good. I've just talked about giving me some tips.

James Blatch: Yeah. It's not normally £0.11, I have to say.

Mark Dawson: Yeah.

James Blatch: But I was happy with that yesterday. Also, that was the free book campaign. That does give you probably a higher churn rate as well and not as valuable but there you go. There's a different percentage, but there is a percentage of people who will read on and buy, which is the key thing and the reason we do it.

Okay, right. Shall we talk about Matt Ralph, and we can have a little chat about your own children's books off the back of this interview, which is just starting out. Matt is somebody who had that very typical journey we've heard it many times before on this show, which is people who start off looking for a traditional deal, because that's basically all they know about, and then they discover the world of self-publishing and for some people they never look back. Mark in particular, but also Matt Ralph. He's done a great job in a difficult or more challenging genre to marketing, which is children's books. But let's hear from Matt and then Mark and I will have a quick chat.

Matt, welcome to the Self-Publishing Show. Great to have you with us and great to talk to another children's author.

Matt Ralph: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

James Blatch: We are looking forward to hearing about your success with children's books and gleaning what we can learn. I think you've even, if you may have done this foolishly and rashly at the time, you've offered to put together a PDF on things you found out.

Matt Ralph: Yes exactly. I'm going to put together sort of a tips and tricks type of blog post, something like that, explaining what I've learned along the way and some of the things I wish I'd known and the way to publish a book and market it cost-effectively, shall we say, without spending too much money.

James Blatch: Let's talk about the books, and I think it all started in an airport.

Matt Ralph: It did. Back in end of 2018, it was December, I was flying to Germany for a long weekend in Berlin, and I was going through the airport. I saw this poster with a sloth on it, and I don't know why, I just thought it was interesting and kind of cute, and I suddenly on the plane had this idea and it flashed into my head, because I didn't have any other distractions, because on the plane obviously you can't use your phone or anything.

I just suddenly started thinking about a sloth and how would that work if it was a speedy sloth or quick and then speedy came because I like alliterations, and I thought Sam the Speedy Sloth or something along those lines. I think originally I said Sid, the Speedy Sloth. Then I changed the name. I actually ended up writing the book on the plane in the notes section of my phone, and the first line of the book just sort of flashed into my mind. I don't really know why, it just did. Then I wrote the book, and then I ended up turning it into a best-selling children's book.

James Blatch: Wow. There it is. I can see there's a book two as well, Playtime in the Rainforest?

Matt Ralph: Yeah.

James Blatch: Is there more to this series?

Matt Ralph: In my head. It hasn't quite come out yet, but I'm planning on writing more, yeah. The sequel only came out a month or two ago. They take quite a long time to get everything done.

James Blatch: I can see it's very well reviewed, 100-odd reviews and very high scores, cover looks superb. The big question is at that point how you go from the notes section of your phone, and there's all sorts of things in everyone's notes section, into a product, a commercially-viable product. Let's talk through that process.

Did you have any background in publishing?

Matt Ralph: Not really. About three or four years ago I did publish a book. It was actually a how-to book about how to create your own website, and it was more sort of a vanity project just to see what it was like, how you would self-publish and using Amazon KDP, and those sorts of things, but I didn't really do anything with the book. It was a low-content book. It didn't really go anywhere, but it was more a way from me just to see what it was like writing.

But this book, Sam The Speedy Sloth, was my first proper book, shall we say. But yeah, as I said, I wrote in the notes on my phone and I wrote probably about 50%, 60% on the plane, and then I wrote the rest I think several weeks later once I got back around to it and thought about it. I had so many other things, obviously Christmas and everything is busy time. Then I think I left it for quite a long time. I didn't actually publish it until September 2019, a year ago pretty much.

It's quite a long time between writing and publishing it. Within that time I think I tried down the traditional route of getting it published with a proper publisher or an agent and getting all the illustrations done. Then I unfortunately didn't get anywhere with it, but I really liked the idea, so I decided to go on the self-publishing route. I started looking into that.

James Blatch: During that period when you were chasing a traditional contract, had you organised the illustrations or you were anticipating getting a contract where that would be part of it?

Matt Ralph: Correct, yeah. I hadn't done anything with the illustrations, but I was hoping that they would pay for it, basically, and organise it because I didn't know how to do that.

James Blatch: Sure.

Matt Ralph: When that wasn't an option anymore, because I hadn't unfortunately got any interest, I then looked into how to hire an illustrator, and I looked into it and to hire a professional illustrator that you find online. It was going to be thousands of pounds or dollars. I just couldn't afford that.

Then I stumbled across that you might have heard of. It's a marketplace for freelancers, and there's some quite low-cost options on there, and I actually ended up finding a lady based in Indonesia, and she does amazing illustrations, and it's actually very reasonably priced. It was a lot less, 10 times less I would say than it would have cost if I'd done it with someone I found in the UK or whatever, and that's how I ended up getting my illustrations done. She's done three of my books now.

James Blatch: That's amazing. It is something that the Internet has opened up this world of freelancers in wherever they may be and being able to find them. The illustrations themselves, they're beautiful. I think they're really nicely done.

How did you go about working with somebody, presumably to this day you've probably never met her?

Matt Ralph: No. Yeah, it is quite difficult. Obviously on Fiverr, you have to keep everything on the platform. You're not allowed to call them or video chat or anything like that. They're quite strict about keeping all communication platforms. Also, a lot of people on there I guess English isn't their first language. That also can sometimes be a slight issue, because a lot of people aren't based in English-speaking countries that are on there. They speak English, but perhaps not the native level. That's another sort of complication sometimes.

But you just muddle through. I think with illustrations, luckily, it's all, obviously, very visual. We went backwards and forwards with me explaining what I wanted, and then if it wasn't quite right, she would then sketch it through and I would ask her to change things. She was really good, and she was really open to doing stuff. She's so good that she got it the first time most of the time. I didn't really have to do a huge deal. I explained what I wanted it to be, but she did everything else. Yeah, she's really good. I'm really glad I found her.

James Blatch: I should mention Terri Tatchell at this point, because there are similarities if you've heard her interview. But if people are interested in this area, they should listen to this and Terri's interview as well. I got quite interested. Terri's produced very similar books, and I think, from memory, she also went to the far-east and found an illustrator who she's working with. I was very interested in that sort of process after that point then.

You have illustrations that come in, but I wouldn't know where to begin. I can format a textbook by now using Vellum, but as most people can and the odd illustration in there is black and white.

How do you begin to put together what needs to be a very attractive object in people's hands?

Matt Ralph: I originally tried doing in Microsoft Word. No-go, don't try it. It's really difficult. Word is not meant for that. Maybe there is a way of doing it. I'm not good enough with that sort of formatting to know. My actual background before I went into being an author was marketing. I did have a background in using things like Photoshop and graphic design software, but I don't have Photoshop, because it's quite expensive, frankly, to use. I actually used Canva, which I'm not sure if you've heard of.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Matt Ralph: I think it's an amazing programme. I've used it for quite a while now. It's, basically, an online version of kind of like Photoshop. You can sort of edit images. There's loads of templates with text and photos and different elements and stock images. I paid for the premium version. There's a lot more options of what you can do.

Basically, you create the page as you want it. You have the image and then I have the text underneath. You can, obviously, format it slightly differently the text on top of the image, but I kept it quite simple with just a square image on an 8x10 page for the book and then the text underneath. But then I also did all the design elements. At the back of my book, I've got activities like spot the difference and word searches. I created all of that myself using Canva. Then you just download them as images with a PDF and then upload that to Amazon.

It sounds complicated, but it's actually not that complicated in a way. It's almost like doing it in Word, but Canva is just so much easier. There's none of the formatting weird issues because you download everything as basically JPEGs or a PDF. They don't move, which is the problem in Word I find. Things tend to just move for no reason.

James Blatch: Yeah. Word has a life of its own. It can be very frustrating experience. You then have all your pages as JPEGs and you've got the semblance of the book. You then turn that into the various formats.

Without jumping ahead, because I think marketing is going to be the most interesting part of this for many people, I'm assuming this is more of a physical book people buy rather than read on Kindle.

Matt Ralph: Yes, it is, because it's for children and people tend to buy children's books in physical form. I actually have a copy here just to show you.

James Blatch: If you're watching on YouTube.

Matt Ralph: Yeah. If you're listening then perhaps not. But yeah, I do have physical copies and in hardback as well, but I have actually found that I do get a lot of Kindle down there. I'm exclusive on Kindle Unlimited, which we can go to in the marketing section. But I do get a lot of Kindle readers actually. I actually make quite a lot of my royalties on the eBook versions, which I was actually quite surprised about. But yeah, I guess in some ways, it's sort of with digitalization and everything, I guess I can see why. But I still do sell quite a few paperbacks and the margins are higher on them as well.

You have to use PDF for the paperback, but then for the Kindle version the eBook I use the Amazon Kindle kids book creator I think it's called which is a free programme that you can download. You upload them as JPEGs and then it converts it into an EPUB or, sorry, MOBI, which is Amazon's file. That's how it has to be. But it's really easy. You basically just upload them onto this software, and it converts them into the right format for you.

James Blatch: The paperbacks, are they POD? Are they Amazon print-on-demand?

Matt Ralph: Yes. I don't have any inventory stock or anything like that. I go print-on-demand.

James Blatch: What about the hardbacks?

Matt Ralph: The hardbacks I do through Ingram.

James Blatch: Okay.

Matt Ralph: I didn't actually know any of it because I literally got into self-publishing, like I said, I wrote on a plane and then decided to throw it up on Amazon and see what happens effectively. I didn't really know that much about what I was doing, and then I could talk about this a bit later in the marketing bit, but it was actually Facebook that I joined lots of these Facebook publishing groups on Facebook and people were asking similar questions what I was thinking.

I was just looking through the FAQs effectively on these pages and someone talked about Ingram. They basically distribute in hardback and paperback, which is the bonus. I looked into it, and they obviously sell into all these big retailers like Barnes & Noble and then Waterstones in the UK and Walmart I think and all these other big websites, and that's how I did it for that. I use a combination of Amazon and Ingram.

James Blatch: You had a busy six months or so between, deciding that you're going to self-publish and learning how to do it. You went online and learned what you could.

Then did you have all of this in place for the launch day? You had the eBook ready to go, the paperback and the POD, all ready to go?

Matt Ralph: Yeah. The POD side of it is actually really easy, because you just use Kindle KDP. That part was it. That's just uploading it to Kindle, and I never really considered any other option. I never considered buying bucket loads of my book and trying to sell them. I just didn't want the hassle. It's probably a good business model, but I just didn't want the hassle. That part of it was easy, but the Kindle and everything, yeah, I just looked into it and I asked a lot of people that I knew on the Facebook groups, and they all gave me tips, and then I muddled through. But yeah, I had it all ready for the publishing date.

James Blatch: Everything in place in terms of the product.

What was your marketing plan then and where did that come? From the same Facebook groups I guess?

Matt Ralph: Yeah. To call it a plan would probably be a bit generous, but I think eventually, I created a plan because my background is in marketing. You'd think that I would have thought about it a bit more, but I think when it's your own things, you don't necessarily think in that way I think when you're not in work mode, necessarily. But I did eventually realise I had to have a plan.

I used Facebook, joined lots of groups, did a free promotion, because I'm part of Kindle Unlimited. You can do I think five days for three months is the period where you're allowed to do it.

I did free book giveaways and basically just hammered all over the groups that I could find and just said, "Free download," have the nice cover with my sloths on it, and because it's a children's book, obviously, it's quite short as well, so people are more likely to agree to read and review it for you basically, because it's a picture book. It's only about 40 pages or something like that, and it's mostly images and little bit of text.

I basically just hammered that home and tried to get as many people as possible, and that was how I got my reviews to quite a high level. Then I also did some advertising, Amazon advertising. I was really lucky I got two BookBub deals, which apparently it's quite difficult. I didn't really know anything about it. I just sort of applied to it once I had about 40 reviews. I think that's the minimum. You have to have a certain number of reviews to actually apply, but I was really lucky that both times I got accepted.

James Blatch: Superb.

Matt Ralph: That really helped.

James Blatch: This is a different set of Facebook groups, places where you thought you'd find some sort of bloggers or influencers to review. How did you find them?

Matt Ralph: Well, at first, I basically just typed into the free children's book Facebook groups. People who were in those groups were just looking for free books, and I just posted a load of postings, please download my book or something to that effect. That's how I managed to get part of my 20, 30 reviews, and it's only now recently they've started reaching out to influencers on Instagram and things like that.

What I decided was going for what you'd call middle-tier influencers, so people that are actually likely to respond to you, because if you try and go to someone who's got millions of followers, they're unlikely to actually respond to you. I just looked for people who in my case because it's children's book, so I looked for mums, mothers. I thought that would be a good market to go after and basically just message them and said, "Would you like a free copy of my book in exchange for a review?" Most of the time they came back and said, "Yeah."

James Blatch: Wow.

Matt Ralph: I would go for people that maybe had minimum 10,000 followers or something like that, and then obviously they would promote it to their audience for free, I guess. I had to, obviously, pay to send the book to them, but that's not usually that much of a cost. Then that was how I really sort of managed to get from 20 or 30 reviews to now I'm on sort of at 150. That was how I really pushed the needle, along with the book club as well. That was a really big help.

James Blatch: Yes, it's 150 at 5.8, sorry, 4.8. You can't have 5.8.

Matt Ralph: I wish.

James Blatch: Yeah. Which is very good indeed.

Matt Ralph: Thank you.

James Blatch: Heaps and heaps of five stars.

How did your initial sales go back in September?

Matt Ralph: I had a massive spike when the book was new. I think that's true of most Amazon books that when it's new, you tend to be promoted by the algorithm more I think. That's what I've gleaned from my experience. I got to number one in the category on several occasions. It was mostly after a big promotion, so after book went on within the first month or week of release something like that. Because I'm in Kindle Unlimited programme, you have to be exclusive to Amazon for the Kindle version, not the paperback, just the Kindle version.

I get the page reads as well, which I think it helps with the algorithm to boost you up. I then won the Amazon All-Star Bonus on three or four occasions, which is basically a monetary bonus for being in the top 50 illustrated books on Amazon. I won that. The top prize is $500 worth. If you can get that, that's a huge help. I think then having that kind of kudos, if you like, that does definitely help sort of snowball and you get more and more reviews. But then things start to tail off the longer the book is up. You have to keep pushing out new content a lot, and then that's why did a sequel.

James Blatch: What about any paid advertising?

Matt Ralph: I did paid advertising. I actually got into it probably a bit too late. I should have done it from the beginning, but I do Amazon advertising but quite a low scale. I don't spend much money on it, but I actually find that if you ever try Amazon advertising, never pay the bid that they suggest.

James Blatch: No.

Matt Ralph: Always put it down to really £0.10 or something like that. Actually, it doesn't sound like a lot, but you do get quite a few clicks and surprising how well it can be received, even though you don't spend that much, you can still get quite a few sales. I do Amazon advertising.

I've tried a little bit of social media advertising, but I've never really got great results from it personally. It's okay if you're pushing something on social media, like a competition or something that, but for actual book sales, I've not found it converted particularly well. Amazon advertising is the best in my opinion.

James Blatch: That's interesting. Janet Margot, who teaches for us Amazon ads says the same thing, that the bid price is based on if you mentioned kettles in your title of your book, Amazon's algo literally will be thinking about kettles when it's suggesting the bid price. It's not exclusive to books, she explains it in the course, but whatever the computer science behind it is it's not exclusive to books, which is why it'll often say recommended £1.25 or so, which clearly is not going to work for a book of £1.99.

Matt Ralph: No. Never, never ever pay. I made that mistake when I first did it. I think I went with the recommended and it said £1 or $1 depending on which version you used. I think within less than a day I'd spent $5, £5, whatever it was, in a couple of hours, and I was sort of, oh God, so turned them off and realised what I'd done.

James Blatch: Not profitable, okay.

Matt Ralph: No, not profitable.

James Blatch: But the other things you were doing were working, a bit of that organic stuff as well, reaching out to people. In terms of how that launch went in those first two or three months, was it clear to you that this was going to be a viable thing for you?

Can you give us an idea of whether this has replaced the salary for you, or what level are you at?

Matt Ralph: Well, I'm now a full-time author and a freelancer since June or July of this year. Before that it was more just a hobby. No, I'm not making a full-time salary, unfortunately, yet from my writing. I've got eight books in total, but I think the last two of them are my biggest earners, which are the two Sam The Sloth books. Yeah, I'm not on a full-time salary. I make my full-time salary from my freelancing, which I do on Fiverr, actually.

James Blatch: Oh, it's a full circle.

Matt Ralph: Yeah. It's kind of full circle. I started as a buyer and now I'm a seller on Fiverr. I do proofreading, editing, and self-publishing advice, consulting, keyword research, things like that. That's how I make my full-time salary now, plus the books. The books are a nice bonus at the moment, but it's not full-time. But it is definitely viable if you have lots of books. I think how much I earn on one book and then obviously if you could have 10 of those that could then add up quite quickly.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Matt Ralph: You just have to make sure you're constantly pushing things out and keeping on with the advertising and the marketing, because as soon as you take your foot off the pedal, then you see the Amazon rating just plummets as soon as you're not pushing the needle, basically.

James Blatch: It's a living beast. Needs to be fed.

Matt Ralph: Yeah. I'm constantly checking that thing and it's probably not healthy, but I do because I'm interested and it can actually fluctuate massively even if you just look at the beginning of the day and the end of the day, it can fluctuate hugely depending on if you've had a big surge of interest for whatever reason.

James Blatch: Okay. You did a sequel. As you say, that's not been out very long on Sam the Speedy Sloth.

Matt Ralph: I'll just show it just so people can sort of visualise what it looks. They're very similar style, but yeah, it's the same illustrator.

James Blatch: Did I notice a couple of other books as well?

Matt Ralph: Yes. I've got eight books in total.

James Blatch: Yes.

Matt Ralph: My actual first book wasn't Sam The Speedy Sloth. I had written the Speedy Sloth book, but I actually released another book before that, which I designed exclusively using Canva. All the images inside the book, I'll just show what it looks like. If anyone, obviously, is listening just on podcast, it's called, Go On... Press It, and it's got a big red button on the front that says, On, and there's an arrow saying, Press It. Basically inside the book it's for young children.

It says, Press the Button, and then on the next page it shows you what happens as a result. There's a rocket ship blasting off will shake the tree and then on the next page all the apples on the tree have fallen down. I created that exclusively on Canva. It didn't cost me anything other than the monthly subscription. That was the first book I ever did.

Then I've done a couple of other ones since then. Spot The Difference book, I wrote a chapter book for older children called A Knightess In Shiny Armour and it's a play on obviously King Arthur and the Knight of the Round Table this is the Knights of the Square Table. I did that one, and then I've done a couple of other sort of picture books. I did a joke book as well. But they're all relatively low content and cheap to produce. Then my three bestsellers were the ones I got properly illustrated.

James Blatch: You say you run low-level Amazon ads, load bids. Then that's not a huge part of it. You did a lot of that organic stuff at the beginning launch going into groups, finding bloggers, and so on.

Matt Ralph: Yeah.

James Blatch: What are you doing day-to-day beyond that to keep the books as you say alive and the algorithms still hungry?

Matt Ralph: I'm doing a lot more influencer reach out now, but I've got a decent number of followers, including messaging you on this podcast. For example, things like that. I think once you have a relatively strong base and something impressive to look at with the amount of reviews and things like that, it's a lot easier to get people to say yes. I do a lot of influencer reach out. I'm still doing my advertising. Sometimes I'll run free book offers for the eBook, not for the paperbacks.

One thing I've actually started doing recently is I do personalised versions of my book. Rather than it being Sam The Speedy Sloth, I'd say Matt The Speedy Sloth or James The Speedy Sloth.

James Blatch: Okay.

Matt Ralph: Then the inside is personalised with the child's name and then it has a personalised message and I sell that through Etsy, actually. It is on Amazon as well, but I've had more success on Etsy. I've also done merchandise as well. I've got Sam The Speedy Sloth t-shirts and baby onesies, face masks now. I'm constantly thinking of how you can use what you've got and push it in a different way.

Then I have also been looking into the publishing route in terms of being with an actual publisher. I think once you've got a bit more of a following and, not notoriety, it's not too grand, but it is a lot easier to then at least get your foot through the door with a publisher or an agent, whereas when you're first starting out, all you've got is a Word document. It's hard to sell. Those avenues are things I'm looking into.

James Blatch: How much do you sell the personalised versions for via Etsy?

Matt Ralph: In pounds, I'm not 100% sure in dollars because I can only see the pounds version because I'm in the UK. I sell them for £19.99 for paperback and £24.99 for hardback.

James Blatch: Presumably it's a template, it's relatively simple for you to make the changes.

Matt Ralph: Yeah.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Matt Ralph: It's print on demand, obviously.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Matt Ralph: It's quite good margins on it, and I think I'm pricing my book competitively with others that are more professional, as in they professionally make personalised books. These big companies that also advertise on Etsy. I'm quite competitively priced. I've had really good reviews from it, and I do Etsy advertising as well.

James Blatch: Okay.

Matt Ralph: That helps.

James Blatch: I was just going to ask how the printing's done on that, because obviously your POD version of your main book and you don't want to have your bookshelf filled with 100 versions of that. How does that work?

Matt Ralph: I use a different print-on-demand publisher that you just do that one-off, and it's relatively cheap. I had to search quite a long time to actually find one that was going to be economically viable, because otherwise you can go on these big websites that do photo books and personalised books, but they're more for family albums and things that, but they're very expensive, and you'd never make a margin on it. You just have to hunt trying to find the best deal, basically, on how you can get a print-on-demand book printed relatively cheaply, but also decent quality.

James Blatch: I also noticed you've had one of the books translated into quite a few languages.

Matt Ralph: Yes. The Go On... Press It book I've had it translated into multiple language. I think six languages, something like that. I speak quite a few languages myself. I did languages at the university. That helped, but I did get professional translators to do it.

Actually my most recent Sam The Sloth book, because the first Sam The Sloth book was a rhyming book and that's very difficult to translate, my second Sam The Sloth book is written in just regular prose, and that book I've actually translated into a couple of different languages and I think the French and Spanish versions are up at the moment. I'm trying to get some more done at the moment. It's basically just thinking of, like I said, using what you've got and trying to use in a different way, and how you can basically make some more money and just reach a new audience.

James Blatch: Yeah. Make sure everyone in the world can get to know Sam or in fact Pedro as I notice in Portugal.

Matt Ralph: Yeah. Pedro is the Spanish name and then, what is it for the French one, is it Pierre? I can't actually remember now. I think it's something I basically try to think of very typical names in that language, but I've got people doing it in Turkish and Romanian and all those less common languages. I would have no idea what a name in Romanian would be that begins with the letter that's the word for sloths because I wanted the alliterations Sam The Speedy Sloth. You have to think of something that works.

James Blatch: Yes. Now you mentioned that you I guess have a variety of income now. You do some freelance work as well as the books and that's also I think interesting to people who are trying to get to a position, particularly in the COVID world of working from home and having streams of income.

Matt Ralph: Yeah.

James Blatch: Have you leveraged the skills that you've learned through self-publishing? Is that what you're offering other people through those, et cetera?

Matt Ralph: Partly, yeah. For example, my main part on Fiverr, the main thing I do on Fiverr is editing and proofreading. I guess that was helpful in my self-publishing, but I didn't learn it through self-publishing, because I worked in marketing and PR for six years. I was already quite good at that. But no, definitely I offer keyword research for books, which I've definitely learned that because I've had to myself for my own books, and I also do consulting effectively for helping people with their self-publishing questions, which again obviously I wouldn't know if I wasn't doing it myself.

I've definitely leveraged skills and thought about how I can use skills that I have and how I can help people to do that and then obviously earn money by doing it.

James Blatch: Is that a good stream of income for you? Do you have to advertise on Do you have to pay to be higher up in the listings, et cetera?

Matt Ralph: You can, but you can only advertise and pay to be higher in the listings once you're quite well established. Fiverr wants everything to be relatively organic, but you can. I'm now what's called a Level Two seller. I've been a Level Two seller for a while, which is it's not the topics but it's one down from the top and it's judged on how many reviews you've got, how much you've earned on the platform, things like that.

I got to that quite quickly, and I'm now actually a Fiverr Pro seller, which is sort of a separate programme, which is just for vetted professionals. You have to go through quite a rigorous application process. I think only 1% of people actually get in that apply for it. I think having that helped because, obviously, you look more bona fidey and I've got quite a lot of reviews now. Yeah, it takes a while to get your first couple of reviews, but once you've got five or six reviews, you then see that it starts to snowball and you get quite a few inquiries as well.

The advertising on Fiverr, I've tried a little bit, because I actually only got access to it maybe about a week ago. Personally, I've not thought it was particularly useful, because it didn't convert very well for me. Perhaps I'll look into it more in the future, but I found that I get enough organic inquiries.

James Blatch: Yeah. Well, well done.

Matt Ralph: Thank you.

James Blatch: You've gone from a standing start or walking-through-an-airport start to being a published author, who has made a brilliant success of it. You're going to put together something for us.

Matt Ralph: I am.

James Blatch: For people who want to get into children's books. Can you give us a sneak peek of what this will be?

Matt Ralph: I'm going to put together some sort of document about what I've learned far from self-publishing a children's book, the tips of how to do it in an economical and cheap way without spending too much money and also some of the mistakes I've learned along the way and how you can avoid those mistakes. I'll put it up on my website as well.

James Blatch: We'll create a URL, which I always make up on the spur of the moment and have to remember to tell John Dyer so he does all the back end of it. But it will say, yeah plural, childrens, children or childrens, we can also confuse people. Childrens, what John does is he does both.

Matt Ralph: Okay.

James Blatch: He knows that we say one-

Matt Ralph: That's very good. Very diligent.

James Blatch: Yeah. He'll do both just to make sure we catch everyone to let people to download that.

What's next for you? Is there going to be any more Pedro/Sam?

Matt Ralph: Hopefully. I'm always thinking of ideas. I haven't actually had a chance with everything else I've been doing to actually write a third in the series. But I'm hoping to, and like I said, I'm trying to find an actual publisher now. I'm trying to go down that route to see if that will work. Fingers crossed and watch that space to see if anything happens on that front but nothing yet.

I'm planning on doing sequels. You've got to go where the money is, and obviously that's my bestseller. You've got to try and push that as much as you can and think of other ideas. But I always just try and think where's the money, what's going to work, and what is it, and you have to basically test it and see. There's no guarantees, unfortunately.

James Blatch: Work smart, put the effort in, in the best possible place. Traditional versus self-publishing, obviously, is a bit of a debate, and Mark always says that sometimes one's right, sometimes the other's right. It's not a binary thing. But I imagine with the economies of scale involved in printing within the traditional industry, in ways it's almost easier for them to make money out of a children's book than then it is for a self-published author, as you say, because printing-on-demand is probably two, three times the cost of a mass, whether it's a far east factory or here in the UK, the clay and so on. You can tap into those economies of scale. That might work for you.

Matt Ralph: The colour as well, the colour, that's what really kills you, because it's colour printing. That's the killer.

James Blatch: Is the colour a bit lacklustre on the PODs is what you're saying?

Matt Ralph: No, I think they're actually really good, but I think that's what drives up the cost.

James Blatch: Oh, I see, yes.

Matt Ralph: No, the quality is fine.

James Blatch: Yeah, it's just expensive.

Matt Ralph: On Ingram you have to make sure I go for the top quality everything because you can choose the options of paperweight and ink and things like that. Always got for the top otherwise they don't look very good. But Amazon they don't have any options, but Amazon's printing is really good. It's very vivid colours and everything.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Matt Ralph: I'm happy with that.

James Blatch: Yeah. I've been very impressed. We've had coloured books as well, which I ordered just because I was amazed that they were being printed so well on POD, and they've been really good quality.

Well, Matt, thank you very much indeed for sharing your experience over the last year or so putting together these children's books. I'm really pleased that they're making money for you. As you say, it is something you have to be basically every day, you have to be looking at it and thinking about what you're going to do for tomorrow. But that's what when you're a publisher, whether it's your own books or somebody else's, that's the world you're in. We look forward to seeing what else is going to happen to Sam.

Matt Ralph: Yeah. Stay tuned. That's how you find out.

James Blatch: Yeah. It'll happen quite speedily.

Matt Ralph: Yeah, hopefully. We'll see. He's probably speedier than I am.

James Blatch: Brilliant. Thanks, Matt.

Matt Ralph: Thank you very much.

James Blatch: There you go. I was really interested in the nitty-gritty, as you could probably tell, during that interview how he got his illustrations and how the printing worked and the cost per unit and all the rest of it. I hope that's a level of detail was of interest to people.

Mark, you have made some progress this week on your own children's book.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, I have. As I mentioned before, we will get Alan on the podcast a bit later, but I've been working with a very excellent kids' writer called Alan Burroughs, who has been published traditionally before and also as an indie. I had an idea for some stories. Alan thought he could write them, and he has done. We've got two in the bag now.

Stuart Bache is involved. He's drawn the cover, which is gorgeous, as you'd expect. He's also drawn illustrations inside and a map, because it's set in Southwold where I come from or near where I come from.

We're really pleased with it. I formatted it in Vellum yesterday just because I hadn't done illustrations before. It's so easy. It's just ridiculously easy. It took 20 minutes to format a book I've never done before. It's really just that good. We have that.

Now the next thing is that we're thinking about, well, I'm thinking about really, because this is my area of responsibility, is how we're going to distribute the book. The options are to do it all myself, get my team to get the books out there, look at indie bookstores, that kind of thing. Ebooks, obviously, is a different thing and easier. To get a third-party involved to effectively represent the book to the trade, to get them into the supermarkets and the stores, and we think there's a guy I know who is very good at doing that. He's done it for some other indies. That would be an option.

The third option, kind of, 3A and 3B is to use a similar arrangement that I have with Wellbeck, my publisher for the hardbacks, and the paperbacks with Milton Books. I sent the book over to the director there and just as a courtesy we'd see whether he'd be interested, and they're all very interested. They really love the book. They've actually made an offer this afternoon as we record this, and there'll be either a traditional deal whereby I get an advance. Most of that would then go to Alan, obviously, because Alan wrote the book. Or the alternative is to do it as a joint venture, which is what we do with the Milton Book.

The deal is I put in the IP, they put in the marketing, their distribution, the money effectively, and then the proceeds is split 50:50. We're still weighing that up. I think it will be out in eBook before Christmas. I want to get it out before Christmas just so that I think some readers, even adult readers who have the Milton series will buy that, because it is quite fun and nostalgic. Obviously, if it's in KU, it won't cost them anything to do that. We'll do that.

Then if I decide to do it myself, then I would have KDP print books available, because I think the split for kids books will be about 95% in print 5% eBook, whereas normally for me that's almost entirely inverted. It'd be 5% print and 95% eBooks. I think we need to get that thing squared away, first of all. But it's been fun. It's a fun project. Alan's been a joy to work with. Getting the illustrations from Stuart was fantastic. He's just so talented.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: He's probably listening to this now, so we're making his head bigger. But he's so talented and nice to work with. The whole thing has been really fun to do, plus of course, sorry, I'm waffling here, but I'm doing a Blatch, not letting you talk. The book is going to be FS Dawson is the name of the author. It's kind of a pseudonym, but the F stands for Freya, the S of Samuel, and Freya especially has been very involved in the process. I wanted her to see what I do, and then to feel she's had some impact on the story.

She's made some suggestions that we've taken into account. She's helped design what the characters look like, and I want her to be able to hold the book up and say the F there that's me. Obviously, if it's in Waterstones, she can take her friends there, and I can go and talk at the school and things like that. I'm not expecting to get rich off this, but I think it's going to be a really different kind of richness.

James Blatch: I was thinking when you just talked about Freya that you cut to 30 years in the future where there's a high court case and Freya is playing out this podcast to show that she was instrumental.

Mark Dawson: God, if I said something on a podcast that would get me into trouble.

James Blatch: It's possible. The only safe way is never saying anything, and we're not those people. Okay. Well, that sounds great looking forward to it. I shall buy a copy and inspect it before Christmas.

Mark Dawson: Yeah.

James Blatch: You've got your sitting audience who on the face of it you think are not the audience for this book, but on the other hand a lot of them will be parents or grandparents more likely.

Mark Dawson: Thing is that it's unlikely that'll be a thing that they can give as a present. You can't really give an eBook as a present at Christmastime. Well, you couldn't really unwrap it. It'll be a pretty shitty present.

James Blatch: Right.

Mark Dawson: But I think there will be some folk who would like to read it. It's a fun jaunt, kind of the Famous Five, Secret Seven type of nostalgic trip set in a very 1950s town that you know quite well. Southwold is a good setting for this. Hopefully, it will tug on the heartstrings of my existing audience, but it's aimed very squarely at their kids and grandkids.

James Blatch: Lashings of ginger beer.

Mark Dawson: Lashings of ginger beer. Yeah. Ginger ale or ginger beer, yeah, exactly.

James Blatch: Ginger ale.

Mark Dawson: There'll be lashing for sure.

James Blatch: Yeah.

James Blatch: Next venture. Good. Okay. Well, that sounds great. Good luck with that. Excellent. Thank you very much indeed, Mark. We talked about Hello Books earlier. Is there somewhere people can go and try to think now, authors who are interested in being involved at this stage, they can sign up at I think. No,

Mark Dawson: Yeah.

James Blatch: I don't think we've released the domain yet.

Mark Dawson: We have.

James Blatch: I have no idea what's actually on it. I will know after this podcast has been recorded and have a look. But In fact, I think probably we've got divert on the main domain to that, and you can sign up and make sure that you are in the loop for when we do launch. If you just keep an eye on the group, because every now and again Mark posts in there and says we need some X books to start promoting and building our list and you get a bit of, well, quite a lot of free publicity and some powerful Facebook Ads behind your book if you get selected from that.

Right. That's it. I'm going to jump on my mountain bike while the sun is still just above the horizon. Try to get some fresh air, and head into the weekend. That's it I think for me. All that remains for me to say is it's a good bye from here.

Mark Dawson: A goodbye from me goodbye. Goodbye.

James Blatch: Goodbye.

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