Episode 23: When Writing a Children's Book is Easier Said Than Done

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Hi. I'm Victoria Hefty, and welcome to Activate Purpose, where I talk about finding purpose through action while balancing motherhood and career. In today's episode, I'm going to share the difficulties I've had these past two weeks accomplishing a goal I set out at the beginning of the year as part of my New Year's resolution, to write a children's book based on my grandmother's childhood in Kenya. Stay tuned to find out the unexpected challenges I faced as I was putting this book together and what I would do differently next time.

Thank you for joining me on today's podcast. These past couple of weeks have just been a hot mess to say the least. I haven't even recorded this podcast, actually. I plan on doing it weekly, and over the last two weeks it just has not happened, even though I really want it to because, shockingly enough, the act of finding purpose through action while balancing motherhood and career ... Sound familiar? ... is real. In fact, it's actually really difficult. If I had recorded an episode over the last few weeks, the title would have been "Why my threenager won't let me be great," but let me put that aside for a second, and I'll explain.

My three-year-old daughter has decided to have, at least this month ... I don't know what happened. Something about three and a half. But, she's decided to have the most sort of epic meltdowns, tantrums, even a little bit of backtalk, I mean, as much as a three-year-old can backtalk. It's basically like having a hormonal, crazy teenager stuck in this adorable, curly-haired, 37-pound body. It's the best way I can describe it. So, it's been difficult to put my whole gentle parenting philosophy into practice. I've been researching tons of articles on how to parent three-year-olds because we've been at our wits end.

And if that wasn't bad enough, and through obviously no fault of her own, she's had this weird stomach bug last week that caused her to be sick on and off for a few days, which kind of threw my plans for recording, for work, and all these other things sort of just threw them by the wayside. That was stressful on its own because she rarely gets sick. I had to finish up this big consulting project that I've been working on since spring. Then, this book project that I'm going to talk about today turned into an absolute mess, and I had to deal with a whole bunch of unexpected last minute challenges with that. And then finally, take all of that with the last few weeks of my pregnancy and I am tired and over it. O-V-E-R- it, to say the least.

So, where to it begin? Well, back in January, I recorded a podcast sharing three of my goals for the year. Think this was episode 10, I believe. One of those goals was to create a children's book for my daughter and the kids in my extended family, so my nieces, both on my sister-in-law, her children, and then my own sister. I wanted to sort of create this children's book that brought my grandmother's childhood to life. The goal was to tell them about this inspirational woman, who's matriarch of our family, but obviously because they're just children, and I'll define children as you know, I don't know, under eight or so, I wanted it to be simple, easy to read, and more about the pictures and sort of the big picture of her life.

The first step in doing that, at least for me, was finding an illustrator. I don't draw, so that was obviously the biggest challenge. I went to a freelance website that I use pretty often called People Per Hour. It's a great site to find people around the world to help you with various creative projects. Like if you want ... I don't know, if you need a website build, if you want to create a logo, just it's a lot of things that either people that have like a side hustle or entrepreneurs use for some of the graphic design stuff. Up until this book project, my experience, excuse me, my experience with them has actually been really great, or I should say the website has been great.

I posted a job stating that I needed an illustrator for a children's book that I wanted to write. The site has plenty of illustrators to pick from, so I wanted to ... You have an option of just going directly to someone or you can set a posted job and have people pitch to you. I chose the latter. Once I posted this job stating I wanted an illustrator, I was looking for anywhere from like 30 to 40 images, and I wanted it done it in such a time, I started getting pitches and I also gave a budget.

I spent a couple of weeks going through all the pitches that the freelancers submitted. Of the ones that came through, as with anything, there's a couple highs, a couple of lows. But for, me one immediately stood out. I'll call her Nancy. That's not her real name, but it's close enough. Nancy was a great illustrator. I loved how she she captured her images, and something about it just really resonated with me. She was based in the Philippines, but I did ... I just I think it's important to say I did pay her a rate that would have been competitive in the US, because I really don't like the feeling of underpaying someone just because they live in a poor country. I get that the cost of living is lower in the Philippines, but I also think that paying low wages helps to continue this sort of cycle of poverty in many parts of that and other countries. So, that's just as an aside.

So anyway, I work closely with Nancy over the next few months to come up with about 40 images based on my family photos and of images that my mother had of life in Kenya in the 1940s and '50s. She's a very talented artist, and the initial illustrations ... Actually, all of them were really beautiful. So as Nancy was creating the last few batches of illustrations, I found out my family was actually traveling to Kenya mid November, so like right now. For those listening, in real time, this is actually next week. Not next week. It's today. They leave today for an event honoring my grandmother. I couldn't attend because of the pregnancy, so I thought that the timing was perfect to finish up the book, have it printed, and sent to my mother so that she could take it to Kenya with her and surprise my grandmother.

Well, about two months ago, two to three months ago, I noticed that it was taking longer and longer for Nancy to respond to my emails about the illustrations and to send them to me, because she did them in batches. At this point, I had paid about 50% of the invoice with the balance to be paid when the project was finished. Again, the terms are pretty typical. So usually, Nancy responded within one to two days, but now it was taking like one to two weeks, maybe even three weeks to get like a simple response back. So, I just made sure I told her about the deadline, you know, the mid November deadline. She promised she would be finished well before then, because mind you I had to add in time to actually get the book printed.

She was also going to not only just do the images, but she was going to put the book together in an actual book layout with text I provided. So, it was going to be ... I was trying to outsource as much of this as I could because, like I said, I'm already juggling a lot. Well, after my last email, a month passed and there were still no images at this point. This was, I don't know, like two thirds of the batches of photos were in, but I just wasn't receiving any response, like no response, nothing. I started to panic when eventually Nancy responded and she had some excuse, I don't know, like the power wasn't working, even though it had been a month. I find it shocking that the power had been gone an entire month that she hadn't found any way to answer. But, she did ask me to give her one more chance to get the illustrations in, because at this point I knew I needed to leave, again, enough time for the printers to actually print the book, so I was getting really nervous.

But the thing was, and I think she probably realized this, I didn't really have a choice, because it's hard to find an illustrator from scratch. People have different drawing styles. You can't just easily substitute one illustrator for another one. So I said, "All right, fine. But please, please, please, please send everything by October 15th because my family was leaving November 14th." Once again, no response. Nothing. October 20th passed, I wrote one more like Hail Mary email. I was literally begging Nancy to respond. I actually think I wrote like, "I am begging you to respond." I mean, it was desperate. It was awful, but I had no choice, right? Still nothing. No response.

So, I went back and I actually found this because I wanted to be precise. So in my journal entry from Friday, October 26, so this is like almost like two weeks after my email ... Or actually, it's a week after me begging for a response. I still haven't received anything. It's a Friday, and I am writing down, like in my prayers, "God, please fix this because I know I'm screwed." So in my mind, there is no way, because it's Friday, October 26th. There's no way that I'm going to be able to magically find another person to put this book together, get it printed, and shipped before my family leaves November 14th.

So, I'm basically crying at this point and feeling really defeated. Heck, I was ready to have my own meltdown with my daughter. She was doing her thing hating the world, and I was about to join her in this pity party. Well, I woke up on Saturday and my mom always likes to say this quote. She always like, "God helps those who help themselves." So, I kind of took that literally and I said, "You know, I can't wait for someone to save me." So, I decided that I was going to have to do something.

So let me tell you, if there's one thing I'm good for, it is taking on a challenge. Even when I'm already tired and overwhelmed, I can take on a challenge. Again, this is probably another thing my husband would think is not a strength, it's a weakness. I think it's a strength. But, I decided to go with it, so I got to work. I realized that while I didn't have all 40 images that I'd planned for, I did have about 30 or so, which was enough to get across most of the important parts of my grandmother's story. But, I couldn't really do anything without the images, unless it was like a picture book, without actually having a proper book layout. This is where two of my past creative projects came in handy without me even realizing it.

So first was a magazine-style book that I had created almost two years ago called the Philly Baby Bump Guide. It was basically a physical version of my blog at the time that I could give to new parents in Philadelphia. It was basically a test idea I had. The layout was very much like a thick magazine or city guides that you would see at the bookstore. At the time, I had created it by myself using this Adobe program InDesign, so I sort of taught myself how to use this program.

The thing was I hadn't actually opened up this program in two years. I mean I knew that I could figure out how to insert the images and text into a book layout in InDesign, but it just had been a long time. But, I was like, "Okay, let's just ... It's going to be painful, but just do it. At least it's here. Might take you a lot longer than an expert, but just be patient and you'll figure it out." The thing was I had to find a book layout. I had to find a template. There was no way. I was not an expert enough to start from scratch.

But, this brings me to the next thing that helped me when I wrote the book, The Insider's Guide to Maternity Leave, I used a book template from the website bookdesignedtemplates.com. Well, guess where I went to find a template for the children's book? You guessed it, bookdesigntemplates.com. Fortunately, they had a simple, but I thought charming, children's book template that I could modify using InDesign. It gave me enough to work with where I wasn't like creating these pages from scratch and that I could use some of the layout and the different aspects to, I think, help get the process moving along.

So, now it's Saturday. That Saturday and Sunday I spent like any free chunk of time I had during the day and stayed up well into the night putting together images, text, and the new storyline that I had created to account for the missing illustrations. So, I sent the file to my mother and sister to review on Monday, and they came back with a bunch of edits that I worked late into the night incorporating again. But the thing was by Tuesday morning I was done. I couldn't believe I'd actually done it. I just I couldn't believe that on Friday I went to bed freaking out and on Tuesday I had something physical that I could send to the printer.

But not so fast. I had to magically find an on-demand printing service that would get the books to us in enough time. I had done my research earlier in the summer and decided to go with BookBaby. I put in an order on that Tuesday, like a Tuesday afternoon after I'd made sure my mom was happy with all the edits. I put it in the order and for 25 copies. I didn't have time to just put in like a proof copy and then be able to read that one and then order. I just had this sort of go big or go home. So, I just ordered all 25 copies. The website told me that the book would be ready within 7 to 10 days, which was basically just enough time to make this November 14th deadline.

But you know what? It said that it was going to do it, so I went to bed feeling really positive and feeling good about the prospect of actually getting this done. Well, that was until the next day. I got an email I think that morning saying that the books were in production. A good thing, right? Only for another email to come in just a few hours later that said, "Actually, your books are going to be delayed because the print house has to order a new part and there's no way they're basically going to be able to meet my November 13th deadline." It's actually November 13th because they leave like November 14th. So, I told them, "Please have it by November 13th." They said that they were ... There was like no way that they were going to be able to get that deadline in.

I was floored to say the least. I was upset. I was just like, "Oh my goodness. I'm so close, like please." But at the same time, I didn't have the time to get truly upset because I had to find another place that could essentially turn this book around and ship it in seven days. I thought that was impossible, but I was like, "I have to at least try." So, I'm searching like crazy for like baby book competitors. I'm praying out loud. In my head I'm asking like, "Please let me find a place. Please let me find a place."

Then, an hour or so later, I find Lulu Printing. Fortunately, they have this express printing option that it basically lets you upload the PDF of your book and it prints copies rather seamlessly online. Then, the production takes three to five business days. So if I picked next day shipping, which was expensive, but it's fine in the big scheme of things, the books would make it in time. So, I scramble to upload the PDF files from InDesign, the program that I'd been using, into Lulu's website. I briefly check that the proof ... They had sort of an online proof, like a PDF proof. That came up immediately. Made sure that it looked good, or at least, like I said, I was like scrambling, so it looked good from what I could see. Then, I put in the order because I wanted to be able to get it in as soon as possible and not lose the day.

The great thing is that I was able to cancel the BookBaby order, so got my money back on that, and that the Lulu order was actually a little bit cheaper. So, I was able to purchase 30 bucks instead of 25 books. The price ended up being like fifty cents cheaper. So anyway, the books, they said that the books would get their shipped faster than BookBaby. So all around, I was feeling pretty good again. So, Lulu for the win.

I wish that was the end of the story, but again, I wouldn't be doing this podcast if it was. I submitted the Lulu order, like I think that Wednesday afternoon. But something, you know when you just have that feeling, like that uneasy feeling? Something made me go back and review the proof again that night. I realized that the colors, the colors in the proof seemed off. The original illustrations are bright. They're colorful. They show all the colors of Kenya and Africa. Everyone has sort of dark skin. It just was really beautiful, and that was part of it. I wanted a really colorful children's book.

The issue is the proof, when I looked at it again as I was not scrambling, right? It wasn't as bright as the file that I uploaded. In fact, it was a little toned down. It was like almost like very brown. I went back to the website, Lulu's website, and I dug through the folder that had sort of instructions for how to upload the book cover, et cetera, for their specific website. I found what you call custom, like Adobe presets in the folder. I'll talk a little bit briefly about that.

The thing that I knew but hadn't really paid attention to was that whenever you're dealing with a file that needs to be printed, like at a commercial press, so not just like on your desktop, but is being printed at like a big printing press, you have to make sure that you export a PDF that not only looks great on your screen but also prints great. And that's where I messed up. The file that I uploaded looked great on my screen, so I didn't scrutinize the proof copy as well as I should have. If I had, if I'd taken a step to just say, "All right, do the colors actually look okay?" versus looking for typos or seeing the pages were out of order, if I had focused on the color, I would have realized that I actually needed to use one of Lulu's Adobe preset that they'd customize. And if I'd used that, that would have allowed me, basically like uploaded into the InDesign program. And if you use the presets that they give you, it allows you to export a file that's going to print as vividly as what you see on your screen, right? As vividly as the original illustrations I had.

So, I called Lulu customer service that evening. This was Wednesday evening. And actually no, I didn't call them Wednesday evening. I put it in a support customer support ticket Wednesday evening because I knew no one was there to actually answer the phone. Then at 8:00 AM when they opened up the next day ... So, this was Thursday morning. I called literally like 8:05 to talk to someone. While they were sympathetic, they said that the order was already in production and there wasn't anything I could do about it. No refund. I wasn't even worried about the refund at that point. I just wanted the book done right. They were like, "There's nothing we could do that." I get it. They deal with like thousands of book orders coming in. You can't just have people writing emails last minute and changing something. There just wouldn't be time for that. And that also takes away from why they're able to do this quick turnaround, right? No changes.

But let me tell you, I was so disappointed. I was frustrated. I was disappointed. I was tired. After everything, the illustrator essentially ghosting me, putting together this book last minute by myself, having to cancel that order with BookBaby, and then finally finding the savior in Lulu, this book still wasn't going to be perfect like I imagined. The pictures were not going to be super bright and beautiful, but instead ... Yeah, they were going to be beautiful, but they weren't vibrant like I wanted. Honestly, I was upset. I was so upset.

I vented to my husband, my mom, my brother, my sister-in-law, and they all basically admitted that, yeah, the images are not as great, but that's only when you compare them, right? The original with the proof. My wonderful sister in law, Erica, was encouraging. She essentially said that, "Yeah, there is a difference. But you know what? You set out to do something, and you did it. Done is sometimes better than perfect." When I thought about it that way, I did start to feel better. In the big scheme of things, here I was complaining about less vibrant colors while my book was in production, while just a mere like four days ago I was writing and praying in my journal for God to fix it. Four days is not a lot of time. And when I look at it that way, yeah, I was still disappointed, but I could see the big picture and I was proud of myself for moving heaven and earth to finish this book.

I will say that Lulu ... Actually, the production order through Lulu also ended up getting delayed, but their customer service was absolutely fantastic. I dealt with one person the entire time who helped make sure that the printing house got my book out in time. She stayed on top of it. She made sure that it was sent out and that she gave me my tracking numbers. Then, I'm so grateful to say that the books arrived at my mother's doorstep yesterday, which is November 13th. I made sure she left work. She went to the house, pulled out a copy, showed me on video what they look like, and they actually look great. Yes, the colors toned down, but in a weird sense actually the color makes it look more authentic to the time in Kenya that I'm trying to capture, so it all worked out.

So, that is my journey. I am incredibly proud of the story I put together. My family loves the book. I can't wait to hear and hopefully see if they take a video of my grandmother's reaction to reading this book that she doesn't even know is coming. And in the end, that is all that matters.

I'll finish by sharing three tips for anyone thinking of doing a similar project for their family, which in spite of all the drama I had, I would encourage you to consider. So one, give yourself plenty of time, like six months to a year. If you had told me I needed at least six months to a year to finish this children's book, I would have laughed. I'm like, "Why would it take that long?" But I would definitely give yourself a lot of time. That way, the idea itself can evolve if it needs to and you can adjust it each step of the way if something goes wrong. If something goes wrong with the illustrator, if something goes wrong with the printing house, something goes wrong with your proof that you don't like it, you have time to fix it and adapt. So, that's one thing that I've been ... Probably the first thing I would recommend, is just give yourself plenty of time.

Two, have one proof of the final book sent to your house. I did the proof online. I looked at it on a PDF. But I think, again, because I was scrambling, it just wasn't as obvious as if I'd had enough time and had one shipped to my house and actually look at the book to see what it looked like. You can actually for almost all of these printing houses, you can have one proof sent to your house for review before you buy multiple copies. I didn't have time to do that.

But actually, in hindsight, I realize I'm super lucky that the final book was exactly how I imagined, minus the color issue. Especially if you're doing this yourself, it's incredibly important because I've learned even having an extra page in a book can mess up the order of the entire book. And the thing is, once that order goes into production, it's final. There's no refund. There's nothing you can do. So, that's one thing I would definitely recommend. Actually, I would recommend this whether or not you're doing it by yourself, if you have someone else doing it for you, but get that proof and go through it thoroughly.

Then three, in spite of it all, have fun with it. Hopefully that is what sparked your desire to even do something like this. If possible, try to involve a couple family members. I think you don't want too many chefs in the kitchen, obviously, but have one or two people that you can really bounce ideas off of that can be a resource of you and really make it a family event. I think part of the reason for me at least why I did a children's book was that I could incorporate real pictures from our family and create this living thing.

And it's really cool to see this come to life. I loved hearing all of these stories and facts about a woman that I thought I knew really well, my grandmother, but who in fact I've learned all of these little gems about that I think just make her more wonderful than she is. So, I think if you have a really good spirit about this project, whether it's a children's book or something similar, even as you're juggling many things, whether it's work, whether it's children or both, I think the outcome will be wonderful if you have a great spirit for it.

My challenge for you today is to take a step back and think about maybe you had a New Year's goal, or maybe even had a goal a couple of years ago, maybe a couple of months ago that you had in mind. You're like, "You know what? I'm going to put that, write that down as a goal," but the idea kind of fell off. Ask yourself, "What can I do to pick it back up again?" And do one thing over the next week to help push that goal along. It can be as minor as doing some research online for more information on how to make this happen. It could be browsing a website, like People Per Hour just to see what sort of expert can help you make that dream alive. There may be people on there that you didn't even know existed that can really help. Again, outsource if you are busy, which I am assuming you are, like everyone. But more importantly, just do one thing this week and get the process going. It's worth it. I promise you.

If you have any questions about my experience writing this book or even my last book, but specifically this children's book and trying to juggle all of the pieces, or want to share an idea you're having trouble acting on and you need some sort of advice, I'm happy to help you in that respect. You can email me at victoria@activatepurpose.com. I will include links to all the resources I used and mentioned in today's episode in the show notes at activatepurpose.com/episode23. Finally, if you enjoyed today's episode, make sure to leave a review and subscribe to next week's episode.

Until next time. Bye!

I'm Victoria, your host.jpg
Activate Purpose