Author Dawn Secord shares her journey toward self-publishing a picture book featuring her Irish Setter named Bling.

In 1984 I knew I wanted to write and illustrate a children’s book and an Irish Setter would be the main character. Doing so would combine my three loves: my pets, my art, and books. I was 21 years old, going to college part time while working full time and had just acquired my first Irish Setter. Years went by and it was never the right time, or the right dog, but my dream continued.

(5 Ways to Add a Refrain to Your Picture Book and Why You Should.)

Careers would get in the way. Relocation from Texas to Southern California would get in the way. It is interesting how life unfolds and evolves. With the passing of time, disappointments would transform from darkness to light as I realized they had become some of my greatest learning experiences and opportunities. I am getting ahead of myself and perhaps should go back a few decades.

From Art to Finance to Art

In high school I had two scholarship offers for art school. At that time I feared I would be unable to secure a prosperous future as a fine artist and chose to go into finance. In 1988 I worked for the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Company (FSLIC) in the Dallas operations and transferred to their Los Angeles office. Almost eight years later, at age 33, I was the general manager and acting CEO of a pet product manufacturing company in Southern California. The company made pet products and shipped to all the major pet supply retailers as well as distributors in the US. I was miserable and all I wanted to do was paint. What was needed was a path to take me financially from a corporate executive to an artist.

The perfect industry was opening up at that time—pet sitting. After consulting with a business attorney and deciding what type of company I would start, in 1996 I started Fur, Feathers & Fins LLC in Southern California. My business skills would prove to be a driving force behind my budding company. The company grew and in 2003 I was named “Pet Sitter of the Year” by Pet Sitters International. That same year I won the inaugural poster competition for the AKC (American Kennel Club) with my painting of an Irish Setter pup sitting in a silver trophy cup. The artwork was titled, Full of Dreams. I could have never imagined the doors that the dog show world were about to open.

The dream of writing a book was never far away and my outlook on life has always been not to just look outside the box, but look miles down the road. In the late 90s an opportunity to write a pet care column for a regional magazine fell at my feet. Résumés take time to build. I could not pass up this opportunity. Now that I was writing professionally, I was able to join the Dog Writers Association of America as well as the Cat Writers Association. If I was to write a book, credential building now would have dividends in the future.

As life would have it, paths opened to allow my dream to begin. In 2009 I was creating an English Setter painting and wanted a critique of the conformation of the dogs featured. It was suggested I contact an expert, then AKC judge, Marsha Hall Brown. Mrs. Brown agreed to see the painting and a wonderful friendship began that day as she guided me through some adjustments that would enhance the painting. A few years later in 2012, Mrs. Brown (who had authored a number of published books) asked me to illustrate a children’s book she was writing. We agreed on the project and to my delight, a journey into the world of illustrating and publishing began. Mrs. Brown’s son, who is in the film industry in Hollywood, guided us to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Mrs. Brown’s book, Show Dogs Escape to the Seashore, won a Maxwell Award from the Dog Writers Association of America for the cover illustration as well as a Muse Award from the Cat Writers Association for a cat illustration. In 2012 my husband and I bred our first litter of Irish Setters. The pup we kept was named Bling. All of a sudden everything aligned. I was involved in the children’s book world, I had the perfect dog with the perfect name for a children’s picture book.

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Looking Down the Road

Again, I found myself looking miles down the road. What did I need to do for my book? I could start building a following for Bling! A domain name was the first step, so I thought. I had realized the importance of the word choice used in domain names and search engines. What needed to be done first was to file a copyright for Bling to protect her name. Without knowing what name was available for copyright, a domain name could not be chosen. An attorney was retained and the work started.

We jumped through some hoops, but were able to copyright “A Dog Bling” thanks to my artwork. Another way I had begun to promote Bling in advance was by creating a greeting card line with her illustrated image and name on it. Again, looking miles down the road had proven to be a huge plus for the road ahead.

So much effort was being put into preparing for writing the book, I realized that a single book was not setting my goals high enough. My dog, Bling, would now be starring in a series. The domain name as well as the name for the series would be “A Dog Bling.” Once the domain name was secured and registered, a website was started for Bling. Having learned to create and manage my own website for the pet sitting business, it was easy to create a website for Bling.

The next thing I did was create a Facebook page for Bling. Bling also has a blog and a children’s newsletter (that was and is geared for adults to share with children). I started tweeting about Bling on Twitter and sharing her on Instagram and making YouTube videos on “A Dog Bling” channel. Success was being realized when people would approach me at events for my art as well as dog shows and ask to meet Bling. Creating a large audience in advance for the book series and my artwork was proving to be fruitful.

The release of Show Dogs Escape to the Seashore happened in fall of 2013. We had two book launches. One at my home and the other launch was located at Mrs. Brown’s home. I invited friends, family, dog show acquaintances and pet sitting clients. One pet sitting client had to decline due to the birth of her first grandchild. Imagine my surprise when I saw her featured in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators newsletter a month later. I had no idea she was an author and a highly acclaimed one at that. Immediately a call was placed to her with me enthusiastically explaining I had no idea she was an author and that was not the reason for her invite to the book launch. We had a fun laugh and met to discuss my book.

She put me in touch with writing coach, Suzanne Lieurance of Write by the Sea (Writebythesea.com). To this day I continue with monthly coaching meetings with Mrs. Lieurance. After all, my strength was in the illustrations. I cannot overemphasize the great assistance having a coach has been in learning and establishing my characters. Writing children’s picture books is truly an art in and of itself.

In 2017 I was asked to illustrate another book for Mrs. Brown. This would put my book on hold again, but the learning opportunity was priceless. And of course, it was another paycheck. It was very interesting to watch the world of books and publishing from a front seat yet guest position. I had started to attend SCBWI writing conventions to learn the ins and outs of actually writing my book. I knew I could illustrate it, but writing a children’s book was foreign. At each convention I would pay to submit my manuscript and illustrations for critiques to the publishing houses and/or art directors who were the guest speakers. The feedback received from these critiques was invaluable. Always take opportunities when they knock at your door.

Attending these conventions, over a few years, I saw trends changing. Self-publishing in 2012 was not highly regarded from my vantage point and I know we each have our own opinions. By 2018 I had seen some significant changes. The world of self-publishing was evolving and self-publishing was gaining more respect. While illustrating for others and getting to know other authors who were both published and self-published, I realized a great deal of personal time and effort had to be put into marketing your book regardless of the publishing mode. Published authors did their fair share of footwork setting up book appearances and book promotion overall too.

Thinking I wanted to pursue the traditional direction of seeking a publisher, I had started sending query letters out and my writing coach asked me why I was not considering self-publishing. After much thought, discussions with my husband and coach, I realized self-publishing was the best option financially.

Going the Self-Publishing Route

My first book in the “A Dog Bling” series was released late March 2021. The name of the book is No Ghoulish Green Monsters Here. It is a story of Bling’s journey to face her fears, find her self-confidence and learn the wonderful benefits of teamwork. At this time, my goal is hard copy books and not e-books. With books, I wanted families to have real pages to flip and touch. A primary goal with my book was to promote literacy with children. Another goal was to provide families with a learning opportunity through my books and Bling.

The book has a parents’ guide which is free and downloadable from the book’s website. The parents’ guide can make the book not only a storybook but an educational tool as well. There is a coloring book page, an art lesson, a history lesson, a geography lesson, and a glossary, which serves as a vocabulary lesson. A teachers’ guide is in the works.

Bling has done many virtual school visits during COVID and children love her. She has visited libraries and home school groups. I am constantly receiving photos from parents and grandparents of their children reading the book. Parents of toddlers tell me their children cannot stop looking at the illustrations. Building the relationship between Bling and her audience in advance has created personal relationships with those purchasing her book. Recently, a professional tutor was telling me how she was assisting a third grade student with a reading disability. The child was given No Ghoulish Green Monsters Here as a reading assignment and was able to read the entire book. It was a milestone for everyone.

In closing, do not pass up opportunities. Look down the road at what you want to accomplish and begin working on it yesterday. Take time now to research publishing choices for self-publishing. Take time with your audience to create real bonds in advance and stay connected with them. The rewards are infinite. As my writing coach is always telling me, “read read read”—the more you read other children’s books, the more you will learn.

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