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Saving The Sea King’s Daughter
How One Intrepid Children’s Author Reprinted His Own Picture Book by Self Publishing with Print on Demand

By Aaron Shepard

Printed in the SCBWI Bulletin, Sept.–Oct. 2011


For more resources, visit Aaron Shepard’s Kidwriting Page at
www.aaronshep.com/kidwriter

Copyright © 2011 by Aaron Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose as long as no text is altered or omitted, but it may not be posted online without permission.


Book cover: Adventures in Writing for ChildrenI should have been suspicious the first time.

Like most other moderately successful children’s authors, I’ve had my share of books going out of print. My response over the years has been to immediately request a reversion of rights, and to encourage the book’s illustrator to do the same. My idea was, with emerging technologies, I might one day be able to reissue the books myself.

So, when my picture book The Sea King’s Daughter went out of print in both hardcover and paperback, I had my agent send the reversion request. But this time was different. After a month or two, I was informed that, instead of reverting the rights, Simon & Schuster was restoring the book to print.

I took that as a pleasant surprise. It had never happened before, but The Sea King’s Daughter was one of my biggest sellers and my most honored book—illustrated as it was by the world-class artist Gennady Spirin—so it didn’t seem unreasonable. But a year or so later, the same thing happened with my next S&S book to go out of print. And this was one of my worst sellers—a highly unlikely candidate for reprinting.

This time, I did get suspicious. So, I ordered copies of both books from Amazon. Sure enough, they were both print-on-demand books from the biggest of the POD services, Lightning Source.

OK, you may be wondering how I knew that, so let me back up a bit. Since 1999, alongside my career as a children’s author, I’ve been building a profitable career as a self publisher of adult nonfiction using POD, and particularly Lightning Source. In fact, I’ve written and published several popular books helping others do the same. So, when I saw those two picture book reprints, the last pages told me at once they were Lightning Source books. (In general, if the last page shows nothing but a bar code and text at the bottom, you’re looking at POD.)

I should also explain I have nothing at all against publishers putting their books into POD, even if it means keeping the rights forever. In fact, I welcome it. There was just one problem.

The Sea King’s Daughter looked terrible. I don’t mean just a little off, as paperback reprints tend to look, but really, truly terrible. The colors were much too light and much too green. A book that had been honored by The New York Times as one of the best-illustrated of the year had been reduced to a sickly, horrid embarrassment.

So, I did what any overconfident children’s author with a meager background in POD book design would do. I offered to create new production files for Simon & Schuster.

They actually accepted that offer. But after I realized just how much work it would be, I decided to up the ante and try to publish it myself. S&S generously offered to revert my rights for that, but I had never been able to connect with Gennady Spirin directly, and I wasn’t sure I could make the necessary arrangements with him. So instead, I bought the reprint rights from S&S for both text and illustrations. (And yes, I later received my author percentage of the rights fee.)

At my request, S&S then immediately canceled their Lightning Source edition. And later they did the same for another, more-or-less forgotten POD edition of theirs I discovered—this one set up with Amazon’s BookSurge, which had since been merged into CreateSpace.

Now, if you think this is an article encouraging you to go out and reprint your old picture books, guess again. I had no idea what I was getting into, and the farther in I went, the worse it got. Here’s a brief litany of what I encountered, along with my solutions. (For a more detailed discussion, see the longer version of this article on my Publishing Page at www.newselfpublishing.com.)

Problem: S&S no longer had either digital files or original art for the book, so I planned to scan and descreen the old page proofs I’d saved all these years. Halfway through the scanning, though, I realized the proofs were not in good enough shape for the job.

Solution: Order a new set of proofs from the printer for a breathtaking sum of money.

Problem: The new proofs were sent not as spreads but as signatures—huge sheets of paper with eight pages per side, and with most double-page illustrations separated into two non-adjoining pieces.

Solution: Cut out the individual pages carefully and count on a glued binding to hide imperfections at the gutter.

Problem: Halfway through the scanning and descreening of the new proofs, my trusty old large-format scanner began to break down, with no repair parts available.

Solution: Buy a new large-format scanner for a sum greater than all my expenses so far. Also, buy an expensive third-party scanning program to make the scanner work properly with my Mac, then spend a couple of weeks learning how to use the new program. (It’s a good thing this project was for love, not money!)

Problem: Because of a satin finish on the new proofs for cover and jacket, they were already curled and marred beyond usefulness for scanning.

Solution: Entirely redesign the cover around an inside illustration.

Problem: The original title page was designed with title words stretching across the gutter. That was fine on the flat pages of a sewn hardcover, but not on the curved pages of a glued paperback.

Solution: Entirely redesign the title page.

Problem: The original typeface for the book was mostly too delicate for the low resolution of today’s color POD. I knew it would look even worse if scanned along with the illustrations and screened by the printer. But for most pages, that seemed inevitable, because type was placed over painted backgrounds.

Solution: Typeset the entire book from scratch, using the lovely original typeface for display type but replacing it with something sturdier for body type. I managed to remove all old type from my scans without noticeably harming backgrounds by use of “Content-Aware Fill,” a brand-new feature of Adobe Photoshop CS5. When an area with type was deleted, Photoshop filled in with the pattern of surrounding areas! I could then place new type over the same spot.

Problem: For color printing, Lightning Source imposes a number of odd and restrictive requirements. For a glued binding, each page must include at least a narrow white margin at the gutter, even if that fell in the middle of a two-page illustration. Pictures that bleed off the page must do it by a full quarter inch—more bleed than was available on my proofs. Also, none of the trim sizes offered by Lightning matched the dimension ratio of the original book.

Solution: Switch to CreateSpace—Amazon’s POD operation—which did not impose such requirements and had just begun offering custom trim sizes. (This switch, though, came at the expense of Lightning’s much superior distribution).

Problem: At first, I’d intended to match as closely as possible the color from my proofs and my hardcover copies. But the more I studied those and played with my scans, the more I became aware of problems with contrast and color cast in the original edition, despite the acclaim the book had received.

Solution: Use Photoshop to adjust the contrast and remove the color cast, bringing out colors in the illustrations more brilliant than I had ever known were there.

Problem: CreateSpace, like Lightning, declines to provide a color profile for its POD presses and paper, making it impossible to target an appropriate print color space.

Solution: For Lightning, I had already found a more appropriate color profile on the Web and had also worked out a color conversion process to apply less ink to the paper if needed. Though I could probably have used the same solution for this book at CreateSpace, a tech there confided that I could just supply my files in the common Adobe RGB color space with profile embedded, and the color would be converted automatically and correctly.

It worked! The colors were lovely. The printing was not as sharp and clean as it would have been on better paper, but overall, the book was well within the expected quality range of a reprint—and many times better than the disaster from S&S.

And so, The Sea King’s Daughter is back, in a brand new paperback 15th Anniversary Edition from my own Skyhook Press. Was it worth it?

Probably not. If I had it to do over, I doubt I would. On the other hand, now that I’ve done it . . .

OK, I admit it. I’m raring to reprint more of my books. And after that, maybe some originals? I do have all those unsold manuscripts. . . .