Jenna Harman is an illustrator and the co-founder of publishing company Doodles and Scribbles. Here, she talks about what it’s really like running a children’s book publishing company and shares useful tips for others thinking of starting one…
Tell us about your business: what do you sell?
I run a publishing company called Doodles & Scribbles with my booky partner, Lucy Reynolds. Here we sell our own books via our sales and marketing agent, Bounce, and our distributor, GBS, who distribute to bookshops nationwide.
Lucy and I also offer our creative services to businesses and schools as a writer / illustrator duo. We run various writing and illustration workshops for all ages, and we love collaborating with businesses on other creative projects too, such as a recent ‘Poetic Nature Trail’ for Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Separately – as a freelancer/sole trader – I design and illustrate, and run an online shop selling my prints; and Lucy co-directs the Stepping Into Stories Children’s Book Festival in South East London.
When did you launch, and why?
We officially launched Doodles & Scribbles in 2017. We had created an illustrated children’s story together but we knew it could take a really long time to break into the children’s book publishing industry the traditional way (submitting manuscripts to the big publishers). So we decided to try going it alone to see what might happen.
We didn’t have huge ambitions – we just wanted to get our story out there. But we knew we wanted it to be a really good quality picture book (industry standard production) and to sell enough copies to cover our production costs.
With my background in magazine publishing production, and Lucy’s writing and project management skills, we felt we could have a stab at launching our own publishing company.
Now we have three books selling consistently across the UK and beyond. We also have translation deals signed for our latest release, We Are Family (hardcover, 2022), and this is also due out in paperback in February 2023.
What gap were you hoping to fill in the market, when you launched?
We strongly felt that the publishing industry – particularly the children’s book sector – was an impenetrable market. There were, and still are, many incredible children’s publishing houses launching numerous amazing books by some of the most talented authors and illustrators. But equally we felt like there were many talented but unknown authors and illustrators who didn’t stand a chance because the market was so saturated.
We looked at the music industry at that time, and saw people successfully launching music careers on their own labels – and on their own terms – and we wondered whether we could do the same with children’s books and start to shift things to a position where independently published, high quality works could hold their own both within the publishing industry and on high-street shelves.
How is it, running a creative business?
Not as creative as you might think. Illustrating and creating a book is a wonderful and fulfilling process – from the spark of an idea to the actual writing, drawing and designing. And reading that story to children is amazing – we love to visit schools and festivals, using our stories as a tool for further thematic exploration. For example, We Are Family has been praised for its thoughtful approach to the idea that ‘all families are different’, and we love working with schools to touch upon PSHE topics around family diversity and inclusivity.
However, so much of our time is spent doing very non-creative stuff: admin; pitching; meetings; marketing; PR; social media; website; accounting; sales; packing envelopes; issuing invoices. There’s so much to do! It’s all very important stuff and integral to running a publishing company. It’s satisfying too, as we know it all helps to build our business and our profile. I wouldn’t always call it creative though.
How does your partnership work?
Creatively, we work together really well – we love each other’s work (Lucy is a very talented poet) and we listen to each other’s ideas to help enhance our work. Often I’ll step in with the words and likewise Lucy sketches ideas for images.
Within the running of our business we have different skills to offer, and each have dedicated roles. And if one of us is in the thick of designing and/or writing to a deadline, the other will pitch in to help run the business.
We’re based in different places (Lucy – near Guildford, myself – Somerset), so we catch up with regular emails, phone calls, zoom meetings. Thankfully we were already working remotely lots before Covid hit! But we especially love it when we unite for joint events and festivals – we’re great friends and we love to bunk over at each other’s houses (our kids get on really well too which is a bonus).
What has been your greatest challenge?
Probably navigating the early days of our business and keeping our spirits up when we realised the enormity of the project we’d taken on. Launching a children’s book is a crazy challenge – around 10,000 new children’s books are published in the UK per year, and many more than that don’t ever make it to the shelves. So looking back, we were quite naive to think we stood a chance. We have definitely needed to lean on each other when things at times felt insurmountable.
As an ongoing challenge it can sometimes feel like a battle to be noticed as a small independent duo without an agent or big brand publisher to represent us – there can still be stigma around the quality of self-published books and any doors that have opened, we’ve had to tap on ourselves. So we’re constantly working on our confidence and practising self-promotion, which doesn’t come naturally to either of us.
And biggest success?
Our sales figures and reviews. When we first started out, the wonderful reviews we were getting from independent bookshops and their customers was integral to promoting the book and selling more copies. From there we got our first order from Waterstones (one copy!) but this turned into multiple orders and multiple boxes, and another print run. This was just amazing – to see our book in Waterstones windows and shelves is a ‘pinch me’ moment every time.
More recently, our hardcover edition of We Are Family has been receiving such positive and touching reviews from children, teachers, families and the press. This makes every moment of effort feel worthwhile and hugely rewarding. We Are Family tackles sensitive subjects that are incredibly close to our hearts so we’re deeply touched that the book has been received with the care and sensitivity we’d hoped for.
What are your dreams, for the future of Doodles and Scribbles?
At some point we feel we need to decide which route we’re going to follow. Are we going to continue as an author / illustrator duo and enjoy creating further Doodles & Scribbles books? Or are we going to focus on being publishers and start to publish other people’s works too? It’s a real dilemma, especially as we’re often approached with manuscripts. We’re working things through carefully at the moment, focussing on our books and our young families while we consider the different paths that our business might take.
In my heart of hearts, my dream would be for us to continue publishing our own books, and for them to receive accolades that have so far only been enjoyed by the biggest and most established publishing houses.
Do you have a piece of advice for others starting out in publishing?
When you’ve created a book, it’s been designed, edited and art-worked, and the ‘print’ button has been pressed, you definitely deserve to celebrate the milestone. But you’re only half way there. When you’re making a plan, don’t forget the sales, distribution, marketing, PR, building relationships, postage, website maintenance, admin… And the general book promotion – from events to festivals to school workshops and bookshops and window displays.
And if you’re creating your own children’s book, my biggest piece of advice would be to take it into local schools as a prototype for some honest feedback from kids – your design might be perfect but they’re the best critics and their response will let you know how good it is.
Any other comments?
We run lots of booky events for kids of all ages, but we also work with adults too. We’ll be speaking at the annual SCWBI Conference this November with a three-hour workshop about how to start out in publishing – this will be a really hands-on forum and we hope to inspire lots of future book makers to give it a go.
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Photo credit: Helen Kichenbrand Photography