In this interesting indie author interview, Rachael chats with Kathy Tallentire, a children's writer and author of Nana Duck. If you're interested in writing a children's book, you'll be sure to find Kathy's experiences and advice helpful.
You can find the author's contact information and links to her books below.
Kathy is the self-published author of two picture books – Nana Duck (set in her home county of Staffordshire) and Rescue Me about an abandoned dog and his adoption journey. She plans to publish two more picture books in 2021 and is working on several more. In her non-writing life, she is a chartered accountant who works part-time as a Finance Manager, a mother of one lively 4 year old and a lover of reading and walking.
Abandoned and lonely, Dog watches the other dogs in the park, wishing that someone loved him. When a kind man takes him to a rescue centre he makes a friend, but will he find the home that he so desperately wants?
Rescue Me is an emotional and heart warming tale by the author of Nana Duck.
How important is research to you when you're writing your first draft? What research do you have to do for your genre?
This depends very much on the book. For my first picture book, Nana Duck, I did practically no research. It was based where I live and the plot was basically a pun on people in my area calling other people Duck.
Other stories require a lot more research. I will soon be starting work on a story that has links to the 1980s so I want to make sure that all of my cultural references (songs, toys etc.) are correct for the time period.
Sometimes research is necessary even when you don’t realise it. I wrote a story about flamingos (due to be released in 2021) and I had one scene where the main character gulped down some fish. I later saw a video of how flamingos feed and I realised that the picture I had in my mind for this was completely inaccurate. He was much more likely to be eating algae! This just goes to show that even for children’s picture books, it is good to check the details.
When did you realise you wanted to be a writer? In other words, why are you a writer, and how important is it to you?
Reading has always been an important part of my life and I’ve always been surrounded by books but I never seriously considered writing until my daughter was born. I’ve played around with plots for various stories in my head for years but I was never that good at creative writing at school. Then I had an idea for a story that I just couldn’t move on from. I wrote it down. People liked it and I decided to self-publish.
Since that first story, I’ve written much more and have many ideas for possible stories. I love the process of getting to a finished book which for me includes picking and working with an illustrator as I am not an illustrator myself.
What inspires you to write?
After my daughter was born I had an idea for a book that just wouldn’t go away! I thought about it for months and eventually I wrote it because I couldn’t find anything quite like it. This was the first story I’d written since school and it was the first book that I published.
Now I’m inspired to keep writing by the children I write for. There is nothing like 30 excited faces looking up at you as you read your book in a classroom. When a child tells me that a book I’ve written is their favourite or when someone tells me that their child has asked for my book every day after nursery and my other book every night before bed, it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling and this makes me want to keep going.
There is nothing like 30 excited faces looking up at you as you read your book in a classroom.
It amuses me that this is the case. I remember having to write and illustrate a children's picture book when I was at high school. We then had to read it at a local primary school to a class full of children. It was awful! I was so nervous that I just about got through it. When we were asked if we wanted to read to another class, I was incredibly grateful when a friend offered to read mine for me. Now school visits are one of my favourite things to do. I think this is a great anecdote for children (and adults) – it just shows how you can develop in areas that you never dreamed you would.
Where do you get your ideas?
Anywhere and everywhere. It can be something that someone says, something that I read or something that I see. I was out on a walk once and a blackbird dropped a worm in my path. It gave me an idea for a story that I want to write. Another story came to me after seeing an illustrator’s portfolio online. I had two specific characters in mind for ages and when I saw her portfolio, the story came to me. I wrote the first draft that night and it is one of the books I hope to publish this year (with this illustrator).
Do you have a schedule for writing, or do you write only when you feel inspired? How often do you manage to write and when you do, how many words can you manage in one sitting?
Writing isn’t a full-time job for me. I spend a couple of days a week working as a Finance Manager (because I’m a chartered accountant by trade). I have a 4 year old who takes up a lot of time and I’ve been busy releasing my second book, Rescue Me, so writing has taken a bit of a back seat recently. I’m in awe of people who do all of these things and then write into the night. I wish I had their energy!
My plan for 2021 was to start writing more when my daughter was at school but obviously that hasn’t happened. Hopefully the schedule will start in the spring.
Writers are often labelled as loners and introverts; in your opinion, is there any truth to that?
I don’t know many writers personally, but those that I do know are neither loners nor introverts. I am certainly not. For indie authors, I think one of the hardest things is putting yourself out there and many people dislike selling themselves, but it doesn’t make them loners/introverts.
What would you say are the easiest and hardest things about writing a book? What do you love and hate the most about what you do?
For me, the hardest thing is the length of the story. With a picture book you have so few words and they all need to count. I always write ‘long’, trying to get all of the ideas about the characters and the story down on paper. I then work with my wonderful developmental editor to get down to the bones of the story I really want to tell. It isn’t always what I thought it was when I started.
I’m not sure there is an easiest part. My ideas come when they come and so far that hasn’t been a problem for me. As I’m hoping to increase the amount of writing I do in the coming months and years, it is possible that the ideas will be the hardest part, but I hope not.
One of the best moments in the picture book story process for me as an author (not an author-illustrator), is seeing my characters for the first time. I love it when the illustrator captures the character far better than I could ever have imagined – so exciting! The very best moment has to be getting the final book in my hands for the first time.
Have you ever experienced “Writer’s Block”? How long did it last and how did you overcome it?
As a part-time author/publisher, I haven’t yet experienced writer’s block because I only ever write when I have an idea and time to pursue it. I have had stories that I just couldn’t get finished because I couldn’t make them go where I wanted them to go, but I just put them aside and come back to them later. I think this is a lot easier for a picture book than if you’ve already written 80,000 words of something.
When you write, do you prefer silence or busy surroundings? Do you eat or drink anything when you're sitting down to write? What sort of environment do you prefer?
I often write sitting on my bed with a pen and paper or at my desk. I don’t play music as I find it distracting. I don’t eat when I’m working and only drink water. This makes me sound a bit austere but I think it is because I write relatively infrequently. I don’t think this would be my routine if I was writing all the time.
I often write sitting on my bed with a pen and paper or at my desk.
When you finish writing a book, how long do you wait before beginning the editing process and why? Do you edit your own work, or hire someone else to help you?
I think it is really important to step away from a “finished” story for some time before starting the self-editing process and again before editing begins with someone else. Sometimes I leave a story for months before I go back to it. I go through a number of rounds of self-edits, usually with at least a week without looking at the story in between. I get it to the state when I really can’t see what could possibly make it better.
Then work starts with my developmental editor (someone I hire) and it usually gets completely changed because she asks probing questions that make me see that it wasn’t as good as I thought it was. I fully expect this so it isn’t an upsetting process, unless there is a particular line or phrase that I love but it ends up getting thrown out. My three recent stories would be very different (and nowhere near as good) if I hadn’t found my developmental editor.
The story then goes to my line editor who may also have some comments on the story itself. Again, this is someone separate that I pay to help me get the best picture book story that I possibly can.
Many people advise not to judge a book by its cover. As an independent author, what are your thoughts on cover quality? Would you say it plays an important role in sales?
Covers are essential for people who are not famous, especially in the current climate where most sales are online without ever seeing the physical book. Some people are in the lucky position that their name alone will sell a book but for most of us, the cover is a very important part of persuading someone to buy your book (especially for picture books).
Some people believe independent (self-published) authors produce books of poor quality in comparison to traditionally published books, often down to editing and cover design issues. What is your opinion on this; what would you say to those people as an independent author?
Unfortunately there are some pretty terrible self-published books out there but that is the nature of the beast. This will always be the case for many reasons. Some people don’t have the money available for editing, cover design etc. but want to publish anyway. Being a self-published author can be a very expensive business.
There are also some excellent self-published books. One of the greatest compliments I ever had was a librarian who told me that she couldn’t tell my book was self-published. That is the standard that I aim for and there are lots of other indie authors who are doing that too. I would also say that traditionally published books also vary in quality. Don’t dismiss something just because it is independently published or assume that you’ll like a traditionally published book more.
Don’t dismiss something just because it is independently published or assume that you’ll like a traditionally published book more.
What is your experience of publishing so far? How have you chosen to publish and why? What do you feel are the benefits of this method?
My first book was locally based and would never have attracted a mainstream publisher. I really wanted to publish it and so did it myself. Having taken the self-publishing route once, I decided that there were lots of things I liked about it so I’m continuing with it at the moment.
For one, it is faster and I’m not very patient! My second book was out in the world much quicker than it would have been if it had been traditionally published. I like choosing the illustrator myself and working alongside them. There is much more input from the author when they are also the publisher. It can be hard to wear all the hats though, and finding people that you trust to give you good advice and tell you if you’re making terrible decisions, is really important. If you are printing the book yourself there are also very significant upfront costs so it is definitely a risk and not for everyone.
If you were asked to give advice to primary school children about writing creatively, what top tip would you share with them?
Find something that you are interested in, something that you would want to read about. The chances are that if you would like to read it, someone else would too. Then, just try it. See what happens. You have nothing to lose!
If you were asked to give advice to secondary school children about writing creatively, what top tip would you share with them and would this differ at all to the previous question?
It would be the same but I would add the caveat that it can be hard work. Draft, draft and draft again. Don’t be afraid to rip it up and start over.
Lots of authors struggle to market and promote their book/s. Do you have any top tips you can share with them, and what have you found to be most effective?
I am one of these authors! I have made a lot of my sales from school visits. I am still trying to learn how to effectively market using social media. An interview on my local radio station (in Stoke-on-Trent) didn’t lead to many sales but it did lead to one from an expat in the USA which I was chuffed about.
Do you believe that writing can be learned, or that you must be born with a passion and/or talent?
Writing for a living is hard work and only a small number make a lot of money from it. There must be a drive/passion underlying that in order to keep going through the hard times and rejections.
That said, I don’t believe that you have to be born with a passion and/or talent.
Passions/talents can definitely appear later in life. I’m also pretty sure that writing can be learned to some extent and that even the best writers (usually) get better with practice.
Do you believe that it's more challenging to write about beliefs, morals and values that conflict with your own? How do you feel about books that explore unusual, 'risky' themes? When reading these books, do you feel at all uncomfortable?
I’ve read lots of books with morals that don’t match my own. It is not necessarily the ‘risky’ themes that I don’t like. One of the things that I find hardest to swallow in stories is the way that revenge is so often the motive for actions that can be graphically violent and awful. I often find this jars with the character before the incident happens that causes them to want revenge. Often I just don’t believe that they would act in this way and this can really turn me off a story.
World-building applies to all genres, even to those where it is not necessary for authors to create unique societies, landscapes and species. No matter your chosen genre, what top tip can you give aspiring authors when world-building?
Consistency is really important. Keep an eye on the details, making sure that there is nothing that feels out of place in the world you are creating. Sometimes I read things and think I just don’t believe that would happen in this world or I don’t believe that object would be in this world. Try to avoid that!
How do you view and define success? What does it mean to you, and do you currently feel successful? If not, what would you need to achieve to reach success?
For my first book, success was defined as selling enough to get the money back that I’d invested in illustrations and printing (which was several thousand pounds). Getting to break even felt like a real milestone. I also really wanted people to like the book that I’d created.
Now I define success in two ways. Firstly, I want a book that I look on with real satisfaction. I have not only written a story that I love, but it is well illustrated and a high quality product. The second part is probably more difficult. I need to make a profit in order to invest in my next book and the one after that (etc.) I can’t afford to do this as a hobby and I want to make it more, a business where I can keep making stories that I love with high quality illustrations and printing standards, time after time. The only way to do that is to sell more books and to sell them quickly to gain momentum.
I define success in two ways.
I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a part of me that still thinks that being traditionally published would be true success, because that would mean that someone else had given me a seal of approval. It is hard to get away from that but at the same time I love all the different aspects of the self-publishing journey (except for marketing). The jury is still out on whether I’ll try to switch to a traditional route in future.
What is the secret to becoming a bestselling author, if you believe there is one? Do you agree an Amazon bestselling status counts, even if that status was for a free or discounted book?
If you find out please tell me! Seriously though, I think people do put some store by Amazon bestselling status and Amazon reviews/star ratings. The more I learn about Amazon reviews, the more sceptical I am about them. That doesn’t mean that other people shopping on Amazon are. If I ever sort out my problems with activating my seller account, then I will (of course) try to get that bestselling status, even if it is in some obscure category that no-one has every heard of.
How do you deal with rejection, criticism and bad reviews from friends, family and strangers? What would you say to someone struggling with a lack of support, or worried about online negativity?
I don’t respond that well to rejection and criticism, especially when it is public and get very nervous when my books go out to the world. In contrast, I was quite happy to get the feedback from my editors, painful as it sometimes was to let go of things I liked.
There are many online communities where support can be found but online negativity is inevitable at some point. Even the most successful people on the planet get negative reviews and comments. It is unfortunately something that we all have to learn to deal with.
When shopping for a book, what do you look at first? For example, book cover, price, title, publisher, reviews etc.
If I’m buying for an adult, I’ll often look at book prize lists or search for the best books of a new year on the internet. Next stop will be Goodreads to get a feel for what ordinary readers feel about a book.
If I’m lucky enough to be in an actual bookshop (and how I miss them in current times) then it is title, cover, blurb and first page if I’m still interested.
For picture books, obviously the cover has a huge impact on me. If I’m in a bookshop I’ll read the whole thing and decide whether I want to buy it or not. I’ve bought a number of highly rated and successful books that I’ve really not liked at all when I haven’t read them before buying. There are certain things that I don’t like in picture books which are quite specific to me so wouldn’t be flagged in most reviews – by reading them through I can check that those things aren’t in the book.
Which retailer do you prefer to shop through for books and why? Does this differ online to brick and mortar?
I buy most of my books from the bookshop in my local town. They do a deal when you order from them so they are not that much more than Amazon (usually) and they know me by name there. I have strong memories of going to brick and mortar bookshops when I was young and browsing for ages while my parents were doing the same. You can’t get that from the internet.
Do you prefer hardbacks, paperbacks, ebooks or audiobooks and why?
If I’m reading a novel, I prefer a paperback. I love to be surrounded by them at home and get really excited when there is something special about them. For Christmas I had a book with blue edges to the pages! Paperback over hardback is simply because I find hardbacks too heavy and while I’m happy to take ebooks if I’m travelling for a long time and want to take lots with me, I still prefer the feel of an actual book.
How do you find trustworthy professionals and freelancers to work with? Do you have a procedure for vetting someone, and what would you recommend debut authors do to ensure they are not taken advantage of?
I think I have possibly been too trusting, although it hasn’t backfired (yet!). I didn’t have a contract with either of the two illustrators or the two editors I’ve worked with. I probably should have done.
I found my first editor through a Facebook group where I saw some of her posts and thought they were great. I contacted her and we started to work together. I came to my second editor and my second illustrator through recommendations which is helpful but I probably should have done more research, even if I ended up at the same point. I never pay the whole amount up front though, so by agreeing to stage payments I get some protection that way.
How do you determine the pricing for your books?
I asked the man that ran my local bookshop for many years what his opinion was when I was writing my first book and went with the price that he suggested.
I’ve stuck with that price (£7.99) but it does cause issues. When people can buy a very famous name for a small amount on Amazon (with free postage too) it does make it hard to sell yours at a higher price when you’re not famous. This is especially true since the pandemic started because everyone is shopping online. It is hard for them to find your book and then if they do, it is more expensive. Before the pandemic I’d go to events and talk to people. When you make a connection with someone, they are more willing to pay the extra £1 or £2 for your book.
Who is your favourite author and why do you enjoy their work more than others?
I don’t have a favourite author but I do have a favourite book series. I read all 6 of the Duncton Wood books by William Horwood every few years. To put this in perspective, there is only one other book that I return to frequently (The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander) and most books get read once, even the ones I really like.
I first came across all of these books when I in my mid-teens. I took them on my gap year when I was 18 and to Ghana with me in my early 30s when I was doing volunteering work. I have a great affection for them but I don’t honestly know why these have stuck with me more than the hundreds of other books I’ve read. I just get lost in the stories. The Book of Three is a short and enjoyable adventure story but the Duncton books are so much more. They make me smile and cry. I feel so much for those characters, even after many reads and more years that I care to think about. Duncton Wood would be my Desert Island Discs book without question.
I am planning to go back to the His Dark Materials books at some point because they are the only books I’ve ever dreamed about, and I dreamt about them two nights in a row.
From all the roles you play as an indie author, if you could hand over one job to someone else to complete for free, what would that task be and why?
Marketing without a shadow of a doubt! I still have a lot to learn in this area. I know that for other authors it would be the accounting/business admin side of things but because I’m an accountant that is relatively easy for me.
What are some free or low-cost tools you can recommend to debut authors? These can be anything from writing software to websites, blogs to organisational tips and tricks.
Facebook groups and Twitter. Free to join and lots of peers to learn from.
Free online marketing resources are also out there which a quick internet search will show but I haven’t found one that has inspired me to marketing greatness. I keep looking though.
Do you agree that it's important for authors to read a lot of books in the genres they are writing?
Yes. I’d guess that I’ve read a thousand picture books since my daughter was born and I feel that I’ve learned a lot from them. I know what I like and what I don’t like. I’ve read many that are incredibly successful and also lots by indie authors just starting out which has given me a good idea of what is out there and where my work fits in to that.
I’d guess that I’ve read a thousand picture books since my daughter was born...
What is the biggest mistake you believe debut authors make and how would you recommend avoiding it?
Failing to realise just how much of the success of a book comes down to marketing and getting it in front of the right people.
Join Facebook groups for indie authors. Make connections with other authors and people who are already doing the job you’re going to have to do. Try to learn from them. There are lots of indie authors out there doing a fantastic job of marketing but I am definitely still in the learning phase and I’ve just published book 2!
"I found the interview questions really challenged me to think. It wasn't a case of just rattling through a few yes/no questions and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I'm very glad that I took part - it was fun! 5*" - Kathy Tallentire
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