We shipped A Story Before Bed, our recordable children’s ebook service back in November of 2009. In the year preceding the launch we spent plenty of time talking to publishers to see if they would license us their books for inclusion in our service. And we did find three intrepid publishers (Immedium, Charlesbridge, and Bubblegum) who were willing to take a chance on us at launch (we’re now up to 350+ books from over 20 publishers). But in the early days, that was far from certain. We worried that we would show up on day one with a great service for recording children’s books minus the actual books.
We may have been naive but at least we were brave… we decided that as a backup plan we should make some of our own children’s books. If publishers didn’t license us their books, at least we’d have a dozen or so books of our own on hand. How hard could it be? It turns out that making children’s books isn’t hard at all. Making good ones however is a challenge.
Lucky for us, our genre of books has a pretty rich catalog of public domain stories and characters that can get you off to a good start. Disney itself started by doing interpretations of public domain children’s stories (and still does). We picked a bunch of stories, hired some writers and illustrators, and set to work. Our results were not bad. And in some cases, they were pretty decent. Our books had some rough edges but they had some cute moments. We threw away the ones that didn’t make our cut, and put the ones that felt professional on our site. And then we realized that because we owned these children’s books we could do pretty much as we pleased with them… including giving them away to get people to try our service. What we had thought was a backup plan turned into an incredible asset. What we thought was a one-time effort turned into an ongoing investment.
A year later we’ve created over 60 children’s books that are featured on A Story Before Bed. Two examples that I’m particularly proud of include Lil’ Red Riding in the Neighborhood – by Aleen Adams and illustrated by Elizabeth Haywood and Snow White in the City by Shanon Lyon and illustrated by Cate Kennedy:
In our early creations I don’t know that we had a perspective or a style other than trying to make them as professional and entertaining as possible. But as with most things, the more you do it, the better you get (and the more opinions you form about how it should be done). I particularly love both of the books above because while they’re based on familiar tales, they feel fresh and modern both in terms of the writing and the illustrative style. Elizabeth Haywood’s illustrations are so striking they could be in a fashion magazine, and everyone falls in love with Snow White’s hair. The creators of Lil’ Red have worked on many more books for us. And I’m proud to tell you that the creators of Snow White in the City have agreed to a two sequel deal… Snow White in the Country, and Snow White in Paris are coming to A Story Before Bed (hopefully before the end of the year).
Our business model is different than most publishers. We have our own distribution direct to consumers, and we don’t really worry about individual sales. Since our business is primarily a subscription business, we mostly care about adding value to the overall offering. The more quality books we have, the more valuable our subscription offer is for our paying customers. Unlike the big publishers, we don’t need a hit book to carry us. We can offer all kinds of books that only a few customer may love. The Raven for example. Not exactly right for smaller children, and with a ballpoint pen illustration style that’s definitely mature. We know it’s not for everyone, but we love it. And we have room to experiment. We’re not constrained by the number of pages a printing press in Taiwan can print books at. We’re not constrained by what Barnes and Noble or Wal-Mart is willing to feature. We’re only constrained by the talent we can find, and our own inexperience at creating children’s books. But we’re getting more experience every day, and finding more talent as well.
And besides… it’s fun.
Right before Valentine’s day we came across an Etsy creator, Stephanie Burrows, who was making cool scientist valentine’s cards. Alan Turing saying “Decode My Heart” and Werner Heisenberg saying “I’m certain about you.” Very nerdy. Very cute. We were inspired. Why not create kids books around these famous scientists. If you’re old enough you might remember the Muppet Babies cartoon on TV. Basically the main Muppets from the Muppet Show but as babies. We have a fascination with younger versions of things I think. (Little Archie, Young Indiana Jones, Superboy, etc.). How about a series of books about scientists when they were kids where their young adventures foreshadow their later discoveries? Not historical fiction exactly. It would be strictly accurate on the science, take some liberties with the story, but keep to the spirit of the character and their accomplishments.
We have done exactly zero market research.
We have done no focus groups.
We have done no competitive analysis.
We just don’t care about that stuff. This sounded like a cool series of books. We would start with Marie Curie. Cause, well, she’s Marie Curie. Now all we needed was a writer. Enter Jennifer Swanson, accomplished children’s writer and middle school science teacher. Here she is in her own words:
Jennifer Swanson’s lifelong interest in science began with her flower collection at 5. Of course, they weren’t in a vase—no– she would take them apart to analyze their insides. Then, at the inquisitive age of 8, Jennifer created her very first science club, right in her garage. Much to her mother’s dismay, Jennifer felt the garage was not the best place for her most valued discovery – a cow skull. Many chemical sets and several science projects gone awry later, Jennifer found herself graduating from the U. S. Naval Academy with a degree in chemistry. After teaching at the prep school level for two years, she decided it was time to pursue her other love – writing. Taking class after class, Jennifer learned to create characters, dialogue and setting. She went on to receive her Masters in Education in K-8 science from Walden University. Her overwhelming desire was to share the fun and excitement of the science world with children. With this in mind, Jennifer took a job with Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth as a middle school instructor. In addition to her teaching Jennifer has authored several books, both fiction and non-fiction. Uninvited Guests and Body Bugs will be published by Capstone Press in December 2011. The Child’s World will publish 5 of Jennifer’s books in fall 2011. These books are part of their “How Things Work…” series. When not at her computer, she is out in the backyard, yes, taking apart more flowers.
As you can see, Jennifer was the perfect choice. She’d already written two books for us (both still in production) a version of the Secret Garden on an urban apartment building rooftop, and a version of Aladdin set in an archetypal Disney tween version of high school. We knew she could write and we knew she had range. We were so happy to discover her love of (and expertise in) things scientific.
With that, we’re happy to give you a preview of the first few paragraphs of “Question Everything: Marie Curie’s Guide to Life”. The first book in our new Kid Scientist League series of books.
As a child, Marie Curie was filled with questions.
“Why is the sky blue, Mama?’
“Why does the lake freeze over with ice when it’s cold?”
“Why does the moon light up?”
“I don’t know Marie,” said her mother.
Marie sighed. Her mother never had time to give her a proper answer.
The youngest of five children, Marie was often left by herself. While her older brothers went to school, her sisters stayed home to help with the chores. Since she was small, Marie didn’t have many chores. Instead, she spent her days dreaming about going to school.
Sitting on the grass, Marie would close her eyes and see herself in a classroom, studying science. She imagined that when called on, she could answer every question asked. In fact, her teacher would be so happy to have her in class that he would proclaim to everyone what a fantastic student she was. School would provide the answer to all the questions she had about the world.
It was an impossible dream. At that time, most girls didn’t go to school, let alone study science. Instead, they were taught how to read and manage a household. Still, Marie, had hopes.
We don’t know how long it will take for this one to be finished but we’ll keep updating you periodically as we make progress… sharing sketches, illustrations, and some finished pages until it’s done. As the illustration department gears up on this book, Jennifer is already hard at work on the second book in the series starring a young Nikola Tesla. Electrifying!
(BTW, we’re looking at doing a Kid Artist League as well. Think Picasso and Chagall as kids. And we need an amazing writer with a passion for fine art and artists. Let us know if that’s you.)