Children’s author Ian Billings started out in the theater, writing and performing pantomimes and fairy tales, before going on to write for the immensely popular CBBC production Chucklevision. He has since written several books for children and has developed a very unique and creative business that allows him to entertain children, sell books direct, and travel the world.
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Ian Billings is not your typical children’s writer. He started out his career in the theater writing and performing pantomimes in the UK. His work in the theater led to his writing for the popular CBBC show Chucklevision. Following that, he set his sights on becoming a published children’s book writer, studying the market carefully before developing, crafting, and selling his very first book Sam Hawkins, Pirate Detective, and the Case of the Cutglass Cutlass to Macmillan. He soon followed that up with a sequel: Sam Hawkins, Pirate Detective, and the Pointy Head Lighthouse.
Despite receiving a “quite good” advance from Macmillan for the books, they did not earn out their advance. After three to four years, Ian took his rights back to the books and co-published them with a company called Caboodle Books, as well as new titles Chocolate Meltdown and Spacerocks. Ian has also recently released Ian Billings’ Lost Property under his own imprint, Tiddley Pom Books. His books are written for kids aged 7-11 years of age.
In 2007, he was invited to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world. “I never thought about doing it before,” he says. “It just occurred to me one day, I shall do stand-up comedy for children.” And so he did, developing a popular 45-minute stand-up comedy for kids about literacy, imagination, and telling stories.
Since then, Ian has combined his show and his books into a unique business as a performer on the primary school circuit, delivering a fun and memorable experience to kids all over the world.
For Grown Ups:
Ian’s book sales don’t come primarily from Amazon, but from direct sales to his audience. On Ian’s For Grown Ups page on his website, he lays out the various presentations he provides to schools and their students.
To land gigs, he contacts schools all over the UK directly through a national literacy coordinator. He pitches his presentation and workshops directly to teachers, offering various presentations for different age levels. Before the day of his presentation, he provides a flyer to the school for children to take home to their parents, letting them know about the upcoming events and the books that will be available for sale.
On the day of the event, he teaches children a creative writing workshop, they talk about books, he performs his stand-up comedy show, and he signs books.
It’s an unconventional business model, but Ian has made it work for him…so much so, that he’s taken his show international, conducting his literacy workshops and performing his comedy for students all around the world. He typically stays three weeks in each country, performs at a different school every day, and sells lots of books…particularly in some countries where bookshops aren’t that common. So far, he’s been to Egypt, Qatar, Thailand, Vietnam, Jordan, Malaysia, Australia, and Brunei, to name several.
Ian is just beginning to dip his toe into ebooks, he says, but he has embraced the indie author mindset wholeheartedly. He’s a huge fan of Nick Stephenson and Joanna Penn. But he’s still getting his books printed in large runs instead of POD. Why is that?
As it turns out, doing a 3,000-book run reduces the cost of the book to 60-70 pence. A 500-book run brings his cost up to 1.50-1.60. Because his sales are primarily made at schools and he needs to have a goodly amount on hand at any given time, this works for his business model.
So while ebooks are still a little new to him, he admits, “I do know paper books, the actual item in your hand, in the school, in the theater, wherever I am, the children have a memento. They have something to take away, which I will sign, and that’s worth far more than, I think, an ebook. Because I think when you have something solid you can keep, you’ve got a memento, you’ve got, you know, proof, and something to play with, something to write on, something to balance on your head. You can’t do that with an ebook. It’s all behind glass as well, isn’t it? You can’t stretch it or write on it.”
The Next Big Thing:
Although Ian has enjoyed his world travel, he confesses that he’s grown quite old — 48 years to be exact — and while he’s enjoyed traveling the world, he wants the benefits of staying at home with passive income. So he plans to continue on his indie writer journey, writing more children’s books, as well as record the audio for his most recent release Ian Billings’ Lost Property.
On deciding to pursue a new career: “I never thought about doing it before. It just occurred to me one day, I shall do stand-up comedy for children.”
On Joanna Penn: “She’s my little guru. She’s fabulous.”
On taking risks: “Because Life is all about dipping your toe in and having a go, and finding out what works and what doesn’t work. When I first started to do the stand-up comedy for kids, I had no idea what I was doing. I woke up one morning and thought, I’ll do that now. That’s exactly what I thought. Sometimes you’ve just got to grab it and go.”
- Life is short. Make the phone call, the offer, the pitch. Ian admits it was “just bloody mindedness” and tenacity that got schools calling him to come entertain and teach their students and sell his books. He just kept calling people and building up his good reputation.
- Keep your eyes open for unique opportunities. Ian was working at an English-speaking school in Switzerland when he discovered that every country in the world has an international school dedicated to the language and the culture of another country in the world. He very quickly realized this was an untapped niche and a great way to see the world.
- Remember this is fun. Try new things and see what happens. Ian’s a fantastic example of someone who has “followed his bliss.” He’s pursued what he’s enjoyed, and he’s made it enjoyable for others. “It’s all exploration,” he says. “It’s a great time. I feel slightly rejuvenated. Every time I get a new job or a new project or a new way of approaching things, I feel rejuvenated.”
Indie publishing looks different on every author. Ian Billings takes his books straight to the folks who want them: the kids. What’s the most creative or unconventional approach you’ve taken in your book business?
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