Taking a Look at Self-Publishing (Ep. 296)

So many teachers have thought about writing, or illustrating, or publishing a children’s book, but they rarely follow through. In today’s episode, Tim talks to AOEU’s Amber Kane about her recently published book. Listen as they discuss Amber’s working methods, how she self-published, and what the publishing process was really like. Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

If you are like me or if you’re like a lot of art teachers, you’ve probably thought before about writing, or illustrating, or publishing a children’s book. I mean, why not? The skillset that we have as teachers overlaps quite nicely with the skillset you need to create a children’s book, and whatever we don’t know about publishing, we can figure it out. We are lifelong learners, right? But somehow we never seem to follow through. We never get the writing, or the illustrating, or the publishing done because now as always, but especially now, there are other priorities. There are other demands on our time, other interests, other things that are required of us, and whatever ideas or work you might have for a book, that gets pushed to the back burner.

So I want to talk today with someone who has actually followed through, someone who has published a book. So, my friend, Amber Kane, from AOEU is here waiting to chat. She does a million things for us here at AOEU, including running the development of the FLEX curriculum. Yet, somehow with everything on her plate, she has managed to finish and publish a book in collaboration with her brother who is also a teacher. But I want to talk to Amber about her working process, the process of publishing a book, what the experience was like, and just hear more about all of it. So let me bring her on now.

Amber Kane, welcome back to the show. How are you?

Amber: I’m doing fabulous. It’s nice and oddly warm for November, and so that always puts me in an extra good mood, and I get to talk to you, so.

Tim: All right. Fantastic. I’m excited to talk to you. Well, I mean, you and I talk maybe not often enough, but we talk enough. We’re friends, but you haven’t been on the podcast for literally years, and I don’t know how that’s happened, but I’m excited to have you back. So this is going to be a good conversation. I suppose we should catch up on work stuff first. Out of the many, many things you do at AOEU, you do a ton of work with the FLEX curriculum. How are things going with FLEX? What’s new? What’s happening? What can people expect from FLEX coming up?

Amber: Yeah. That’s a good question. You’re trying to get me to dish all the secret details.

Tim: A little bit. Yes, yes. That’s right.

Amber: So we are in the midst of doing a lot of planning for 2022. So the FLEX team has several fairly new team members that are curriculum designers, and so we’re having a lot of fun in really taking time to research, and brainstorm, and think of all the new, exciting things that we can bring to art teachers and also, how we can just continue to improve what we’re already doing. So I can’t make any promises because we really are still in that planning, brainstorming, dreaming.

Tim: Fair, fair. Yeah.

Amber: But some things we’re talking about, and so you’ll just have to keep checking in on FLEX to see if they actually happen. We’re really exploring one-day lesson plans of like… We all know, especially right before the holidays, where you suddenly have, “Oh shoot, I have a class period. I have to teach something,” or you just oddly end a project early, but it’s not great to go into another one. So helping teachers fill those awkward gaps that we all have.

Tim: Yeah.

Amber: Thinking about bringing in some games, more artist bios, and are looking at also bringing in some artist bios at a lower reading level. Right now, they’re at the eighth grade reading level, and we’ve heard you. You want them written at a lower reading level.

Tim: That’s all pretty exciting. I like all of that. So the real reason I wanted to have you on today though was to talk about your children’s book that I think is publishing or maybe it’s already published. Can you tell us about your book and just, I guess, what it’s all about?

Amber: Sure. So it is published. My brother is an elementary phys-ed teacher. For several years now, he has written stories that he reads to his students and connects activities to them.

Tim: Cool.

Amber: So probably over a year ago, he asked me if I would illustrate one of his stories. I said no many, many times, said that it’s not what I do. I’m really a textile person. Then, I’m not really sure what happened, but it was a weak moment, and I said, yes.

Tim: Okay.

Amber: So the children’s book is called How the Bear Met the Bee, and it’s really exploring chance encounters of how we end up actually meeting each other. So that bear and the bee go on some adventures until they finally meet one another. Then, we also worked on bringing in some activities. Since we’re both teachers, we couldn’t make a book that doesn’t help you actually use the book even more in your classroom.

Tim: Correct. Right.

Amber: So there are some writing practice, spelling practice. There are some how-to-draw guides, and then also, a series of movement games. So we really tried to connect to me being an art educator and him being a physical educator.

Tim: Oh, I like it. That’s really a good idea. I’m looking forward to checking that out. So let me ask you though because I think publishing a book is something that a lot of art teachers want to do or at least have thought about doing before whether it’d be the storytelling, the writing, the illustrating, maybe all of the above. So what made you eventually want to be part of this? What made you want to do it?

Amber: I was trying to be a good sister, I think. I think that was part of it, and it also did feel like it would be a good creative project of working in a way that I don’t actually usually work. So I do really love learning new things, and so it felt like a little bit of a challenge. I also originally only agreed to illustrate the book, not to actually help with all of the publishing processes and laying it out because those are all different steps in and of themselves. That was supposed to be my brother’s job, and I can really say this because he is my brother. So like this is just… We all know if you have siblings, this is how siblings roll.

So I didn’t want to do all of the technical work because I spent so much time on the computer anyway, and this project was supposed to take me away from the computer, but my brother will be the first to admit. He does not really like technology, not his skillset, and so figuring out how to lay it out and get it published was really going absolutely nowhere. So I now had done all this work and done all the illustrations and was like, “Well, I could figure this out.” So I sat down and did a lot of research, and figured out the full process, and it ended up being actually a lot of fun. It was one of those of you just have to start, and it’s not necessarily as intimidating as like in the beginning when he wanted me to figure out how to illustrate a book. That just seemed like a daunting task until I broke it down into smaller bits so that it was more fun.

Tim: Yeah. Okay. So tell me a little bit about the publishing thing about what you were figuring out. What were some of the problems that you ran into? What kind of things did you learn throughout the process?

Amber: Yeah, so many problems. Geez. Please learn from my mistakes. I would say really the overarching problem was that it wasn’t clear who was doing what from the beginning. So there wasn’t a lot of clear direction, and we all know as educators, well, that right there is really a perfect recipe for things not going well.

Tim: Right.

Amber: So that was the start of… I just started making illustrations, but not really thinking about the end product, like how were they actually getting onto the computer, or into a book, or any of those things. Those drawing things. So don’t do that. Number one, have an actual plan so that you really understand the end process because that’s really going to influence the size of your drawings, how you lay all of them out, and so it was… Going back, I learned, once I was also really acting as the publisher, that is a different role than being an illustrator. But if you’re self-publishing, well, you have to act like the publisher, and so understanding what platform do you really want to self-publish on and what type of documents do they require you to upload. What size? There are a lot of books that are considered custom sizes, and so the pricing is better for those. They’re easier to print. Luckily, my original illustrations were outside of any of the custom sizes.

Tim: Of course.

Amber: So looking into that so that you can actually make really clear decisions as you’re going throughout. Knowing what program you’re going to use to lay out the book. So I switched programs multiple times just to keep things interesting. Ultimately, I ended up using Pages, which was the most friendly to output a PDF that Amazon, which is where we self-published, would actually accept. So that’s another one of those, like really understand what you’re doing before you start doing it. I just picked a platform and started laying things out, and then realized I couldn’t get it to output into a format that Amazon liked. So I started over. If you’re picking up a theme, I started over a lot.

Tim: Yeah.

Amber: This is a really good example in teaching of revision, like when we tell our students, “It’s okay to start over. It’s great to revise your work.”

Tim: Yeah.

Amber: I’m like, “Oh gosh, I’m such a liar as a teacher.”

Tim: It’s not great, actually.

Amber: Yeah, it’s not great at all. It’s not even fun. It’s really tough, but hey, yes, kids, please do it. I think that was my biggest lesson of the number of times that I had to start over, and then even once I finally had the layout and had it uploaded in Amazon, I think we ordered… You can order proofs of your book so you can see the physical copy. I think we ordered three proofs, and you have to. Do not just trust what they show you digitally on the screen.

Tim: Right, right.

Amber: It’s not the same. It is close, but it’s not the same. So each time the proof came, there were edits that needed to be made, which somewhat felt like starting over because you have to go back to that PDF, and relay things out, and redo the uploading. So I think some of it is just building time in for that, and accepting that, and thinking about how many people you need to get feedback from and who you need to get feedback from because also like my brother first gave me all the texts in just a Word doc. For me, that is not helpful.

Tim: Yeah.

Amber: So once we had the proofs, I had to start giving… My mom who is also a teacher, she was helping edit. So I had to give really clear instructions to everyone that was editing of how I needed the feedback, like the format, how it was organized so that I could be confident that I was putting things in the right place and understanding what everyone was saying because for a moment, it was like, “Here’s some handwritten notes. Here’s an email.”

Tim: Yeah. I was going to say. I can probably get pretty chaotic, I would imagine.

Amber: Yes, so really just being honest about what you’re getting into and knowing illustrating a book is not the same thing as publishing a book. Those are two very different processes and very different roles.

Tim: Yeah. It sounds good. Okay. So let me ask you though. Yeah. We talked about all of the difficulties, but were there parts of the process that went well for you? What did you enjoy about publishing this?

Amber: I like that you have some confidence that something went well for me. I really appreciate that, Tim.

Tim: Well, otherwise, the entire podcast is just going to be like, “Never publish a book, anyone,” and nobody wants to hear that. We need some positivity. We need some motivation as far as like why people need to follow through with this.

Amber: Yeah. Yeah. I appreciate that, and I would say, so just to overall really say I would consider doing it again because I learned so much. So really, if you just go make a checklist of all the things that I told you I did wrong and just skip them, you’re going to be golden. So for me, part of it was I did enjoy the challenge. I didn’t always enjoy it in the moment, but it pushed me out of my comfort zone in so many different ways in thinking about how I was creating the materials that I was using. I think for that part of it, we know putting our work out there is very vulnerable, and I’m used to putting my textile work out there, but like drawing, painting is just not what I spend a lot of time doing. So that feels very, very vulnerable, but was like, “I did it, I learned so much.”

I took a day off of work just to make art for the book. That day, I had so much fun of just like, “Just make a ton of things and play with how this is all going to together,” and really understanding a process that works for me. I realized, I love taking things apart and putting them back together. That’s how, to me, I could relate it to my work in textiles. So I cut every single one of the illustrations that I had already done into parts, like the bear. There’s a bunch of like his front end and his back end, and there’s tons and tons of little parts. I sat on the floor with my light box and camera, and just started making all of these different scenes and arrangements, and putting them back together, and that was so of fun.

So it’s this great reminder of understanding what my process is. I’m not trying to force myself into what I think I’m supposed to be doing, whatever the heck that is, but we all do that of like, “Oh, yes. This is how you’re supposed to illustrate a book.” Like, “Why?” So that was a really good discovery for me. It ended up being a really fun project to work on with my brother. I don’t know if we’ve ever really done a project like this together. So that was interesting, and I loved… and this should be of no surprise. Once I was like, “We are adding activities to this.”

I mean, it could have been a 500-page book. I had to stop myself. That is just my jam. I love thinking about how to help people really use and engage with something, and I also just have this really strong love of paper. So making the book be more pages was really oddly satisfying for me. So I think overall, it was once I really stopped trying to be whatever the heck I thought I was supposed to be and started really thinking about, “What am I good at? How do I do things well?” and leaning into that. Then, I started to have a lot of fun, and it all came together. Now, it’s super fun to see kids reading it. I spent last weekend doing the activities with my nephews that are four and six. They were just going after the drawing activities, and then we had them doing all the movements, which was hilarious to see them running around the house, pretending to be like a bear and a bee, and how they would interpret all of that. So yeah, fun.

Tim: I love it. See, so there were a lot of good things that came out of this, so.

Amber: Yes, yes. So hopefully people made it through that really hard like, “Wow, she made a lot of mistakes,” to the hopeful part.

Tim: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Like I said, people will be inspired, and now, when they are inspired, they’re ready to publish. What advice do you have for them? What kind of recommendations would you give to somebody who’s thinking about publishing their own book? Where should they start with the process?

Amber: Yes. Well, I first told them that you should just start at the beginning, which is true but…

Tim: Yeah. That was Super helpful. Thank you.

Amber: Yeah. I mean, it was a note to myself because I 100% did not start at the beginning.

Tim: Yeah.

Amber: Yeah, but I really would say… and some of it, especially for teachers is think about how you can align this with your lesson planning or how you put projects together because that’s really what it is. So that way, it can line up with more maybe how your brain already thinks, but I would say the one thing that you really need to know first is, where are you hoping to self-publish? My guess is it’s probably Amazon. But if it’s somewhere else, understand what that is, and then go into this, the platform, and it will tell you all the different size books that you can pick and the pricing for those.

Tim: Right.

Amber: You really, really need to understand that first so that you can then make your text and illustrations line up in a format that’s easily going to push into that. Then, the second part is, what is the tool that you’re going to use to put your layout together so that you make sure that your files are in the correct spot? I think from there, you can really lean into your own creative process and make it work. But the non-negotiables are the things that you don’t have as much control over of, and that is, what size does the book need to be, and what format does the platform require you to give it to them in?

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative). All right. So I guess last thing. Where can we find your book? If people are curious about reading about the bear and the bee, and seeing all these activities, where can we find it?

Amber: Yeah. So the book is on Amazon. So if you just look up “How the Bear Met the Bee,” it should come up for you, and then we also added… So as a nice addition, especially for teachers, once you get a copy of the book, there’s also a link in there which will take you to a webpage where all of the activities are also put into slides. So it’s really easy if you want to show it in your classroom, and there are also prerecorded videos of me teaching the how-to-draw activities because another goal was… We know a lot of schools are struggling with substitutes right now.

Tim: Yeah.

Amber: Or just anytime no one… I’ve never met a teacher that’s like, “I love writing sub-plans. That’s my jam.”

Tim: True.

Amber: I mean, if you’re out there, I would love to hear from you. So it’s also our goal was… This was an emergency sub-plan that somebody could pull out, read the book, and start to go through the activities, but also making it super easy if it’s like another teacher filling in for you, that they have all of the resources that they need, and there’s not much effort that anyone needs to put into it.

Tim: Very nice. Cool. Well, Amber, thank you so much for conversation, and sharing your story, and giving us some advice, and overall, just not scaring people off too much from self-publishing. So thank you for all that.

Amber: Yeah. Thanks for having me. It’s great to talk to you. Really, the goal is I want everyone to learn from all of the errors that I made. That’s why I like sharing when I’ve made mistakes just like if I made them, there’s no need for you to do the same thing.

Tim: Exactly. All right. Thanks, Amber. We’ll talk to you soon.

Amber: Bye.

Tim: All right. You can find Amber’s book on Amazon. We will link to it in the show notes, and we talked a little bit about FLEX at the very beginning, but let me just put in another plug for FLEX. It is an incredible curriculum. There are thousands of lessons, videos, assessments, other resources. If you don’t hear enough of me every week on this podcast, you can also hear my voice in some of those FLEX videos, which maybe brings the level down a little bit, but they are still very good videos. They’re beautifully illustrated. They absolutely fascinate your students, whether they’re elementary or secondary.

Great, great videos, but within FLEX, you can design your own custom classes, custom units, which I love. You can access all of those resources wherever you are, however you need to present them. Whether you want to download, whether you want to print stuff, just screen share, or even upload it to whatever LMS you’re using, FLEX allows you to do that. I think the best part, which so many teachers appreciate, there are a lot of options for your district to pay for FLEX. So if that’s something that you think is a possibility, check out the AOEU website, and you can learn more there.

Now, to wrap up this podcast, I will just say that hopefully or maybe this podcast can give you the inspiration you need to finish that book that has been on the back burner for so long, or publish the book that’s already done and you just need to follow through with it, or maybe it’s just good to listen to Amber and hear from someone who has gotten it done. So a big thank you to Amber for coming on and sharing with us. I think it made for a very good conversation.

Art Ed Radio was produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening, and we will talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.