Helena Harper on the importance of research

Posted on Jan 14 2010

Don’t neglect that research!

by Helena Harper

Last year, I participated in an online Children’s Author Academy course, run by New York Times bestselling author, Laura Duksta, who originally self-published her bestselling children’s picture book I Love You More and was then taken up by a traditional publisher.

Laura talked about the pros and cons of both self-publishing and traditional publishing and said that whichever way you go – and that has to be your own personal decision based on what you want to do with your book – make sure you do your research regarding editors, printing houses and publishers. At the time I was interested in two publishers in the UK who offered combined publishing/marketing packages for authors who financed the publication of their own book. I had asked both to send me information regarding their publishing packages. One sent me a very informative booklet which gave me a good idea of the kind of books they had helped authors to publish, their approach to marketing, and the successes they had had. I still had a few questions and when I sent them an email, they were more than happy to answer them.

The other publisher sent me a glossy catalogue of their current books and lots of newspaper cuttings with articles about mainly non-fiction books they had published. Having participated in Laura’s course, I proceeded to contact this publisher to ask them what percentage of their books were children’s books, particularly picture books? What kind of results had they achieved with children’s books written by new authors, particularly picture books? And what was the average number of books sold? Laura had said that every author is entitled to know these things, particularly if the author is paying out a large sum of money (and this publisher wanted a very large sum of money!). After several enquiries, I finally got a response. They told me that they did not think these questions relevant when authors were financing the publication of their book themselves and some books did well and some didn’t. What they advised was that the author should think of the whole thing as an exciting adventure, like a special holiday, and they should not be concerned about the return on their investment – they should just enjoy the process!!!!  Needless to say, I crossed that publisher off my list. Thank you, Laura!

So, don’t forget that research – it most definitely is the key!


HelenaHelena Harper is a native of England, but she grew up in a household that did things somewhat differently to other English households, because her mother was German (her mother had met her father in Hamburg at the end of WWII, when as a British soldier he had been stationed there). This mixed background has had a profound influence on Helena and her understanding of so-called national divisions and whom we call an ‘enemy’ and whom we call a ‘friend’.

From an early age she loved to read and write, particularly fantasy stories, and later she enjoyed studying foreign languages. At Surrey University she studied German, Russian and International Relations and spent considerable periods of time in Germany, Austria and Russia as part of the course. After university she went into banking, but soon realised that was a big mistake. “I felt like I was being suffocated,” she says of the experience. 

She then spent a year teaching languages at a private school in London, and enjoyed it so much she decided she would get properly trained. She did a Postgraduate Certificate in Education at Exeter University and then started her career as a modern languages teacher, a career which has lasted twenty years. During that time she has continued to write, concentrating primarily on fantasy stories for young children. However, in the past few years she has also discovered the joys of writing poetry for adults, and her first two books are poetry collections: It’s a Teacher’s Life…! and Family and More – Enemies or Friends?, which have been inspired by her professional and personal life.

Helena is now a private tutor and translator. She is continuing to write children’s stories, and illustrations for her first children’s picture book are now being done. Her aim is to see the book in print before the year is out. Many people ask Helena why she likes to write. She feels she can best express it like this:

The blank page calls,

the heart responds,

imagination spreads wide its wings

and launches into infinity…

Fingers dance,

words flow,

the page fills,

the soul takes flight

and the spirit sings.


Copyright © Helena Harper

18 responses to “Helena Harper on the importance of research”

  1. Wow, I can’t believe that publisher said that! Obviously it wasn’t he who would be making the investment. The sad thing is, many fledging writers fall for this trap.

  2. Excellent article, Helena. It certainly reminds us that whether self-publishing or using a traditional publisher you have to go in with your eyes open, or be ready for nasty shocks. Laura gave you (and us) good advice.

  3. Dana Donovan says:

    What an eye-opener. That publisher might just as well have said, “Send me a check and shut up about it.” Wolves like that give reputable vanity press publishing houses a bad name. Is it any wonder so many of us sit on our manuscripts and “wait” to be discovered instead of taking more proactive measures to publicize ourselves? I am curious how things worked out between you and publisher number one. Nice article. Thank you.

  4. kathy stemke says:

    Thanks for alerting authors to the scams that are out there. We must ask the right questions.

    Helena, I LOVE your sample poem. It makes me smile on the inside. Thanks.

  5. Excellent article and post, with some wise advice, Helena. Thanks! And nicely done feature here, Gayle!

    The Old Silly

  6. Gayle says:

    I love your comment, Dana. In fact, maybe we could all employ that technique. If anyone out there would like to support up-and-coming new authors, 1) buy our books; and/or 2) send us checks and “shut up about it.” LOL! Hey, it’s worth a shot, right?

  7. Vivian Zabel says:

    Excellent advice. Research is always wise before beginning any venture.

  8. Helena, thanks for the great information about self-publishing, especially the questions you asked and how both publishers reacted. It certainly made me aware of what to look out for should I ever go the self-publishing route.

  9. Great article, Helena. An excellent reminder that there are pitfalls with traditional, subsidy, and self-publishing and we should never jump into anything blindly.

    Gayle, thanks for taking the to time share this with us!

  10. Your beautiful poem should be on every writer’s wall.

    I’m glad I went with a small press instead of self publishing.

  11. Thank you, Gayle, for hosting me and for everyone’s comments.

    Mayra, I couldn’t believe it either! You could have knocked me down with a feather when I read it, but it certainly opened my eyes to the attitude of certain publishers.

    Dana – ‘Send me a check and shut up about it’ sums it up very, very well! As far as publisher no. 1 is concerned, I decided to go with them to publish my second book, Family and More – Enemies or Friends? (which is an ebook at the moment), as a paperback. If that all goes well, then I might very well submit my 1st picture book to them once the illustrations are complete. They don’t accept any and all manuscripts by the way – you have to submit a manuscript for acceptance.

    Kathy – I’m so happy my poem made you smile on the inside. That’s a great compliment! Thank you!

    If anyone is interested in reading any more of my poems, then you’ll find excerpts (and much more) from my first two books here:

    It’s a Teacher’s Life…! http://www.freado.com/book/4280/Its-a-Teachers-Life

    Family & More http://www.freado.com/book/4283/Family-and-More-Enemies-or-Friends


  12. Thanks for sharing your experience, Helena. Such an important reminder to take as many steps – and do as much follow-up – as necessary when considering publishing options, especially in this digital age where self-publishing is more accepted in the mainstream.

    Thanks, Gayle, for sharing!

  13. Karen Cioffi says:

    Wonderful Post, Ladies!

    Helena, I self-published and did a lot of research into pods and other options. I even created a spreadsheet and compared each of the companies. As you mentioned, this is a key step to publishing.

    I love the poem!


  14. Love the article. I’m self published myself and currently looking for a publisher for my 4th book so the information is very eye opening.
    Thanks for the information and I love the poem

  15. Excellent advice! I enjoyed your poem. Thank you for sharing.

  16. Those are great questions every writer should ask of a potential publisher! I also LOVED your poem at the end of your bio, Helena! Thank you for sharing.

  17. Liana says:

    Aaa…excellent article, and lovely poem Helena!

  18. Janet, feel free to put my poem on your wall! And thank you Debra, Karen, Martha and Brigitte for your comments.

    Karen, I think the idea of doing a spreadsheet to compare different options is a great idea, particularly when you’re a first timer about to take the plunge into the choppy waters of self-publication. And you have to be clear in your own mind about what you expect from a publisher.


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