Last October, Liz introduced me to a great book called What Makes a Baby, written by Cory Silverberg and illustrated by Fiona Smyth. (I talked about it in my post on picture books and doing it.) Cory’s book, which approaches the reproductive process from a more inclusive perspective, was a Kickstarter smash hit: $65,516 pledged of a $9,500 goal. The first, self-published printing of What Makes a Baby sold out and it is now in its second print run with Seven Stories Press.
So what’s it like to forgo the traditional publishing process and make a book through Kickstarter? We asked Cory and Fiona to tell us all about it.
P&O: Cory, why did you decide to launch your book through Kickstarter?
Cory: I believed in this project from the beginning, but the truth is that I do, in some ways, live in a kind of happy queer bubble. I knew I could write a book that was inclusive and that worked as well for straight couples as it does for LGB folks as it does for Trans parents, etc… I knew I could do it but I had no proof! So after much encouragement from friends who had successfully funded their creative projects through Kickstarter I decided that doing a Kickstarter campaign would provide me with the proof. Not only the proof that there were enough people out there who wanted a book like this, but proof that I could connect with enough of them and communicate my passion enough to get them to trust me with their hard earned money.
P&O: Did you pitch the book to traditional book publishers first?
Cory: I did get connected to the creative director of a very established Canadian children’s book publishing company and she was supportive and helpful and ultimately felt that the project wasn’t right for them (she was right about that). Through a family friend I also had a children’s book agent in New York who offered me some comments and helpfully connected me to the editor I worked with on the manuscript. Again he was supportive but felt it was too niche to be of interest to big publishers. In general the response I had from them was the response I had from most people in the industry who I spoke with; they loved the idea, but didn’t see how it would be marketable.
P&O: Traditionally, the publishing house will find an illustrator for the book and an art director will oversee the illustration process with little input from the author. How did you find Fiona and how did you work together?
Cory: I know! If I may say so, I think that’s nuts! A collaborative process between an author and an illustrator (when the match is a good one) makes everything so much better. I met Fiona many years ago when she had done some commercial illustration work for a company I was at. We became friends. When I started thinking about this project she was the first person I thought of. At first she didn’t have the time and was going to help me find another illustrator. Luckily for me when I was ready to commit to the project she decided it was too much fun to pass up, so she made the time.
Working with Fiona was (and is, we’re working on book two right now) amazing. We are both pretty gentle people and sort of pleaser-types, but we also both feel strongly about the thing we do, so there’s always room for more conversation and we both really want to get to a point where we’re equally happy with the thing we’re working on.
By the time Fiona signed up I already had a manuscript that I had been working on for two years. I gave it to her with only a few notes and she started with some rough drawings. I would say that the finished book is probably about 60% like that first draft she did.
P&O: Fiona, How did you work with Cory? Did he serve as your art director and client?
Fiona: Yes, Cory acted in both roles but as a collaborator more than anything else. When friends work on a project together, you have the luxury of speaking in a shorthand way.
P&O: Cory, at what point in the book making process did you start your Kickstarter campaign?
Cory: I had the complete manuscript and Fiona had done a few sketches, but that was it. I didn’t have the money to pay her so I didn’t want her to do a lot until we knew if we’d have the funds, but I asked her to do a few sketches so we could make sure we were on the same page, and then do a draft of the cover so we could use it on the Kickstarter page.
P&O: Fiona, you’ve previously published a graphic novel, The Never Weres with Annick Press in 2011. How was this self-publishing process different?
Fiona: With Annick Press, I wasn’t seeing the process of designing the cover, choosing paper and the plans to distribute and get the book out in the world. With What Makes A Baby I was around to see these processes. Also there was the Kickstarter excitement, witnessing the readers’ support before the book was birthed. What Makes A Baby was easier because of the brevity of the picture book format and the control we had, but also harder because of the fundraising, production, and distribution were all in our hands—well, Cory’s really!
P&O: Can you take us through your illustration process on this book?
Fiona: Cory gave me his writing and let me know what he was thinking about visually for the book. He was very open to what I would create. He had done extensive research about kids’ books and talked to families for whom this book was being created, sharing all of this with me to inform the artwork. I did sketches with the idea of beginning a conversation and was ready to come up with other ideas and directions. In the end the first sketches pretty much stayed, except for some revisions in relation to medical information.
P&O: Cory, how did you figure out all of the printing and production logistics? Have you ever self-published a book before?
Cory: No, I never had, although I have produced websites and printed materials before so I’m very organized and a nerd for production details. But the quality of the book has everything to do with [the graphic design firm,] Zab. Zab was really a third creator of the book. They helped us choose everything from font and paper to binding and the way the cover feels in your hands. I don’t think I would have self-published if I didn’t have Zab on board. One of the things that all these print-on-demand and self-publish houses don’t tell you is that book design is sort of everything. Of course it seems invisible as a reader, but as I know you know, it’s part of the foundation of the reading experience.
P&O: You raised an amazing $65,516 (your goal was $9,500). What did you do with the extra money? Is there a Kickstarter etiquette for what one does with extra money?
Cory: The Kickstarter etiquette is transparency. I think what matters most to backers is just that you tell them what you’re doing. Some, of course, will want all the money to go into their rewards. Others will be happy if you can pay yourself too. The rest of the money went into two main things. First, it allowed me to donate over 300 copies of the book (including shipping the books out). I asked backers to recommend places and they did. We’re still getting books out there with this money that I set aside. Second, we spent way more money on the production. We went with Shapco, an amazing print shop in Minnesota. We were able to put extra money to get the color exactly as we wanted it, choose exactly the binding and cover we wanted, basically it meant we could put way more money into the book than would make financial sense if we were a company with staff that needed to make a profit. It sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but in the end I spent it all. Shipping costs alone were over $8,000!
P&O: You said on your Kickstarter page that “This is a project that has elements that traditional publishers would balk at.” Can you talk more about that?
Cory: Well publishers imagine a market, and they think they know this market very well (which is both true and not true). This book would be understood as very niche. Too niche, in fact to make enough money for any big publisher. I find this funny since the book is way more inclusive than books currently on the market, which means that it actually has a larger market. But that’s not how marketers think. So from a financial perspective, as soon as I mention the word “queer” or talk about how it’s good for single parents or parents who have adopted, a publisher will usually just hear niche, niche, niche.
The other problem I anticipated running into was the language and the illustrations. It is written and illustrated so that it works for any kind of family. So that means that we don’t talk about mommies and daddies (even though we see lots of parents). It means that when we see a pregnant belly the body isn’t necessarily read as a woman’s body (although it easily can be). It means that there is an opening in the text for parents to talk about miscarriages with an older child if they choose (although it’s not so explicit that they have to do that). These are all small things that a traditional publisher would have said no to, either because they didn’t understand what we were trying to do or they would be afraid it would confuse or offend people.
P&O: I love your tips for creating a successful Kickstarter campaign in the FAQ section of your Kickstarter page. Can you share them here for book authors or illustrators who are looking to self-publish through Kickstarter?
Cory: I can absolutely share them. There’s no real secret. I spent almost two years working on the book and then spent three months of intensive preparation for Kickstarter. I asked everyone I knew who had used Kickstarter for their advice and they helped. I also emailed a few people who never got back to me, but didn’t let that get me down.
Having a network to start with seems crucial, although if you have a project and are able to communicate it to people who really want it, I’m not even sure it’s 100% necessary.
I read the following articles many times and integrated many of their tips into my own plan.
Finally, you have to be ready and willing to ask people for help and to ask for what you want. These are things that, in my opinion, most of us are not very good at (I’m terrible at it) but it’s actually great practice. Asking for help is one way of resisting the ridiculous idea that we are all independent, and that we don’t in fact owe our very existence to the way that we help each other every day without acknowledging it or even being aware of it.
P&O: What was your initial print run?
Cory: My plan was to print 1,000 copies. Because we had so many backers we printed 4,000. We are sold out. I still have a few copies left for myself and I haven’t distributed all the copies for donations yet, but the book went out of print in February 2013.
P&O: Now the book is being published by Seven Stories Press and distributed in North America by Random House. How did that come about? Is Seven Stories producing the book to the same specs?
Cory: Yes, the book came out on May 21, 2013 from Seven Stories. Their version is identical to the first (except it has their logo on it and, thankfully, it’s more reasonably priced!) An editor from Seven Stories approached me during the Kickstarter campaign. Once the campaign went viral I received queries from five publishers. Seven Stories was the perfect fit. They recently launched a children’s and YA imprint, Triangle Square, and we’re doing two more books for them.
P&O: What do you wish you had known about the self-publishing process before you started? What were the highs and lows?
Cory: I wish I had known more about shipping and storage! I made many costly mistakes in that area.
The best part was getting to work with exactly who I wanted to and getting to make the book exactly as I envisioned it. That’s a privilege that only comes with self-publishing and while the costs are great, it simply was the most amazing and joyous experience. Not that there weren’t times when I felt like we were behind schedule and I was pulling my hair out. Not that there weren’t moments of arguing over the best placement for this or that piece of text. Like anything that matters, it wasn’t easy, but it was so much fun overall and having many friends who are published with big publishers and have fancy agents and get big advances, I have to say I’d take this experience over that any day.
I guess the hardest part is that, in the end, you’re on your own. I had great partners but I was the one coordinating it all. I was the one who dealt with the order fulfillment warehouse and the book fair organizers, who answered emails from people who gave the wrong address and wanted to know where their books were and who had to find a place for us to package up over 2,000 books over 5 days. I had so much help and was never really alone in this but still it’s a lot to juggle and if you’re like me and too self-critical, then it’s a lot of telling yourself you could be doing this better. When you have a publisher, they usually tell you you’re doing great! And you’re not even doing as much!
P&O: Any more Kickstarter projects coming up that you’d like to share?
Cory: Nothing planned. What Makes a Baby is the first in a series of three books. I have to get the second book in the series out for 2014 and then the third in 2015. I’m also working on translations now. And starting in July, I will be touring with the book. Kickstarter is really a short term full-time job, so I don’t know when I’ll have time to do it right again. But I will be back. And in the meantime I donate my time helping other people get their Kickstarter projects going.
Thanks Cory and Fiona for sharing your experience. For more information on What Makes a Baby check out the what-makes-a-baby.com.
Has anyone else tried Kickstarter for a children’s book or other illustration project? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!