Two Self-Published Picture Books Hit Their Strides
January 13, 2011
By Sally Lodge
Self-publishing ventures turned into very different publishing experiences than expected for two first-time authors. Jennifer Fosberry and Cheryl Kilodavis, each inspired by one of their own children to pen a picture book, followed divergent paths to get their books into print, yet their publishing stories had similar happy endings when mainstream houses picked up their books. Fosberry’s My Name Is Not Isabella was released by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky in September, and Aladdin published Kilodavis’s My Princess Boy in late December. Here’s a recap of the authors’ respective publishing journeys.
The idea for My Name Is Not Isabella sprang from Fosberry’s daughter Isabella’s penchant for playing princess as a preschooler. “I like princesses as much as anyone,” says the author, “but I started thinking about women I see as heroes and who I’d want Isabella to emulate, and that was the inspiration for this book.” In her story, a girl takes turns pretending to be different women who have changed to world, including Marie Curie, Rosa Parks, astronaut Sally Ride, and—finally—her own mother. The inclusion of that last role model, Fosberry explains, was sparked by her daughter’s argument with a friend about “who gets to be the mommy” while the two were playing.
After writing her story, Fosberry, a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, lined up Mike Litwin, a North Carolina artist and graphic designer whose portfolio she saw online, to illustrate it. She had submitted some earlier book projects to publishers unsuccessfully and decided to go a different route with My Name Is Not Isabella. “With my other books, I’d used a shotgun approach, looking up names and addresses of editors and sending manuscripts off, and that got me nowhere,” she says. “Since I liked this book very much and my husband—who is a huge critic of mine, in a good way—did too, I made the decision to publish it myself.”
In 2008, the author published the book under her Monkey Barrel Press imprint, lined up Pathway Book Service to help distribute it, and then, she says, “handsold it to everyone I knew.” That edition of My Name Is Not Isabella sold 3,000 copies and won several awards, including a Gold Moonbeam Children’s Book Award, a Gold Independent Publisher Book Award, and a Silver ForeWord Book of the Year Award, given by ForeWord Reviews.
The last-mentioned citation earned My Name Is Not Isabella a trip to the Bologna Book Fair, where ForeWord Reviews publisher Victoria Sutherland displayed the book in the magazine’s booth. It caught the eye of Sourcebooks publisher Dominique Raccah, who showed it to her colleagues at the fair. “We all fell in love with the book immediately,” she recalls. “The author has such a fresh take on showing the breadth of things that girls can be, without being at all didactic. It’s an imaginative, creative journey into history and inspiration.”
The decision to publish My Name Is Not Isabella was easy, Raccah says. Reaching Fosberry was less so. She tracked down the author through Sutherland, and after sending four e-mails and leaving two voice-mail messages, finally made contact. “I was pretty impassioned about acquiring the book,” says Raccah. “Initially Jennifer was hesitant, since she very much wanted to be a publisher—maybe more than being an author. But I told her I really believed that we could do more for her as an author than she could do for herself, that we could amplify her voice.”
Fosberry admits to being somewhat apprehensive. “I was nervous at that point, since when I self-published my book, I really had intended to start a little publishing house. I didn’t want to give up that control. But after talking to Dominique several times, I agreed. And everyone at Sourcebooks has been wonderful. I’ve was very involved in the editorial and design processes, and was able to go on tour in September. We have a great relationship.”
My Name Is Not Isabella’s increased visibility has certainly paid off. Sourcebooks’ edition has 40,000 copies in print, Raccah reports, and it appeared in the #10 spot on the January 9th New York Times children’s picture book bestseller list. And Isabella will have company on bookstore shelves in March, when Sourcebook Jabberwocky publishes Fosberry’s companion volume aimed at boys, My Name Is Not Alexander, also illustrated by Litwin.
A Tribute to Self-Expression
Like Fosberry, Cheryl Kilodavis found her inspiration at home. Written in the voice of a loving, supporting mother, My Princess Boy centers on a four-year-old boy who happily expresses his authentic self by wearing traditional girl things like dresses, jewelry, and tiaras. The book grew out of Kilodavis’s journal entries about her son Dyson, now five, a self-titled “princess boy.” “When Dyson started showing an interest in typically feminine things, I began journaling about my feelings on how that was difficult for me,” Kilodavis says. “It was just a therapeutic thing at first.”
Yet when she began talking to Dyson’s daycare teachers and others, she realized she needed what she calls “a tool that said ‘I support this and I don’t want you to crush his spirit.’ ” She wrote her story, contacted Suzanne DeSimone, a graphic designer and illustrator she’d worked with on past business projects, and asked her to create illustrations based on family photos. The Seattle author then went to a local copy center and had a glue-bound book made to give to Dyson’s teacher.
“She told me that she couldn’t keep the book to herself, but wanted to read it to her students,” Kilodavis says. “She did, and those kids told their parents about it, and many asked how they could get a copy. And some of those parents knew of friends or relatives they wanted to give the book to, and news of the book spread quickly by word-of-mouth.” When the author created a Web site and began selling copies online, she soon realized that the order volume was such that she couldn’t keep producing the relatively pricey copy-shop books.
“I hired a local book printer to produce 1,000, and put them up on Amazon,” says Kilodavis. Last October, when a friend of a friend took a copy to Seattle’s NBC affiliate and the author appeared on a daytime talk show, the floodgates opened. “A clip of that segment was posted online and on my personal Facebook page,” she recounts. “Within 24 hours there was a waiting list for the book, and I received more than 500 e-mails of support. It was an international response that was overwhelming.”
Interviews in such publications as People and The Times of London and an appearance on Today, followed, and Kilodavis notes that she called Inga Hammond, a friend who has long worked in media, “out of desperation. There were so many magazines and shows calling, I didn’t know what to do.” Hammond pitched in to help with the media requests, and gave Kilodavis a good piece of advice: “She said there is a bigger market for my book than I could handle, and told me to find a publisher.”
Through a relatively lengthy chain of people who knew people, the author connected with Simon & Schuster’s children’s division this past fall, and arranged a meeting with Aladdin v-p and publisher Bethany Buck, editorial director Fiona Simpson, director of marketing Lucille Rettino, and director of publicity Paul Crichton. “From the minute I walked into that room, I knew that these people got it,” says Kilodavis. “Back when I decided to put the book on Amazon, I knew I could submit it into a publisher, but I was so afraid that they would change the story. Since this is nonfiction—and my tool—I couldn’t risk having anyone change it. At Simon & Schuster, they wanted to publish it as it was.”
Simpson, who acquired My Princess Boy, remarks that she and her colleagues “were very impressed by Cheryl’s passion and by her beautiful story, which none of us had ever seen before. We knew right away we wanted to do this book, to make sure that its message about acceptance gets out to a wider audience.” The publisher closed the deal quickly, and within two months released the book, which has 20,000 copies in print after two return trips to press.
“The groundswell of response to the book has been fascinating,” says Kilodavis. “I’d say around 95 percent has been positive, which doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with the book. With all the bullying issues today and the horrible outcome of bullying in the past year, we have to get to a better place. As parents, we want our children to be accepted for who they are. I’m still just a mom trying to go through a process. Fortunately, now the world is going through it with me.”
I Am Not Isabella by Jennifer Fosberry, illus. by Mike Litwin. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-4022-4395-0
My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis, illus. by Suzanne DeSimone. S&S/Aladdin, $14.99 Dec. ISBN 978-1-4424-2988-8