About a year ago, I was sitting around the kitchen table with my kids, then eight and five, reading a story I’d written. The story went on to become my first self-published children’s book, Buckley the Toothless Beaver. As I read it, looking to my young audience for feedback, my son (eight) hit me with a question I never expected.
“Dad, can we write a book together?” he asked.
The question was not unwelcome, though I fumbled a bit with my response. Hoping to encourage creativity and foster a love of reading, and unfamiliar with the full extent of his proposal, I said, “Sure buddy, we could write a story together. Lots of stories.”
“No,” he replied. “I want to write a book... with a cover and pictures that we can sell to people."
The kid was gutsier than his old man. I knew nothing about the publishing process, and the prospect was daunting. I certainly didn’t want to discourage his enthusiasm, or entrepreneurial spirit, but at the same time I was worried about creating some sort of false hope. Instead of vowing to go head-to-head with Flat Stanley and The Magic Treehouse, I thought it best to use this as a learning opportunity. I told him that first we had to create something they’d want to buy.
We bounced around ideas and came up with the name of the main character, Elevator Jones, before having any idea of what that character would do. We spent evenings and weekends over the next few months creating characters, plot, and drama. While my son was more focused on the details (names, foods, colors) I tried to push the story forward and help him in coming up with a lesson to be learned. We wanted Elevator Jones to be changed in some way by the story.
We’d sit together and talk about the plot, specific dialogue and outlining of the chapters. We wrote the story with pen and paper. After he went to bed I’d type up what we had written in that day’s session and present it to him the next day. He’d make notes and changes, sometimes scrapping most of the previous day’s progress. By early winter we had a completed story. In eight chapters we introduced characters, identified antagonists and protagonists, developed a plot, and set ourselves up for several follow up volumes.
But although we’d written a story together, we didn’t produce a book. Now that we had characters and an idea worthy of pursuing, I had to figure out what the heck to do with it. I sent out about 30 query letters to literary agents. The responses I received (maybe eight in total) were cordial and encouraging but ultimately led nowhere. I’d attended a course on writing for children the previous year and the instructor said that in most cases the difference between published and unpublished authors is persistence. My will had an expiration date. I didn’t want to still be pitching a story I’d written with an eight-year-old when my son was 14.
I reached out to a friend who’d achieved a measure of success with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program. She gave me the lowdown on the self-pub game and her confidence washed away most of my fears. I decided to publish my own children’s story first as a dry run. I took to Twitter in search of an illustrator, shooting a message into the ether and waiting for legitimate responses. I heard back from about 10 illustrators of various talents, nations of origin and price points. I narrowed my search and ended up speaking in depth with three artists. I came to agreement with a talented high school student from Kentucky mostly because he was good, responsive and within my price range.
After creating a character on paper we now had to convey that image to an artist. After several attempts, and one complete overhaul, Andrew Thomas sent us an illustration that perfectly brought Elevator Jones to life. With a completed story, artwork, and a looming deadline (my son’s ninth birthday) I turned again to Amazon’s KDP program. Amazon is a controversial player in publishing circles but for a self-starter with no connections the program is almost too good to be true. The templates are plug and play and converting your published work to Kindle’s e-book format is as easy as clicking a button.
I finished prepping the book and finally published in early September. I’d intended the first shipment of books to be a birthday morning surprise for my son. His September 11th birthday had acted as my self-imposed deadline but as of dinnertime on the 10th I still had no books. As the kids ran upstairs to get ready for bed I heard the sound of a truck rumbling down the street. I checked the porch and saw a cardboard box sitting by the door. I checked for the Amazon logo, and hid the box in the pantry.
The next morning I placed the unadorned cardboard box on the kitchen table amid other wrapped gifts and balloons. “What’s this?” asked my co-author. Once he realized what was inside he shot me a sly smile.
“It’s done,” I said.
“Now what do we do?” he asked.
“Well, now we have 40 copies to sell,” I replied.
“Awesome. That shouldn’t be a problem. People will love it,” he answered, exuding confidence. The first 40 copies sold out in less than three weeks. After a brief lesson in economics, and the concept of overhead, we agreed on a revenue sharing plan. He set his sights on a rubber band gun at a Rehoboth Beach Toy Shop. The book sold so well he was able to buy one for his little sister too. Our bond grew stronger by working closely together. I’m proud of his entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and generosity (He also donated some of his earnings to a charitable cause at school).
I’m also thrilled that he wants to do it again. That request was quickly rebuffed by his little sister, who informed him that the project would have to wait until her book was published.
—Dan Soderberg co-authored Elevator Jones: The Original Adventure with his son Greyson.