When something is “finished,” it’s human nature to look back on the journey that led up to the moment of completion. Last night, Hide & Go Seek-A-Saurus by Sheri Roloff went to the printer; and today, we received confirmation that the files are being processed. And so this morning, before I dive into a long to-do list that I’ve been pushing off during this busy “pre-press” week, I am compelled to sip my coffee and reflect.
The start of the publication of Hide & Go Seek-A-Saurus was the start of KWiL. Early last spring, when I had solidified the decision to found a publishing company (albeit at this point only in my brain), I set out to do what seemed like the obvious first step—find a book to publish.
Reflection # 1: Start With Whom You Know/What You Know
At that point, I wasn’t exactly sure what KWiL’s niche would be. I knew that publishing to support the #weneeddiversebooks and #ownvoices campaigns was important to me. I also knew that I loved nature writing, and STEM or MAKERS-themed books seemed apropos to the times.
BUT, I also knew Sheri Roloff. We’d met in 2012 through a SCBWI critique group; and during the years that I had been active, I’d had the privilege of reading many of Sheri’s stories and of seeing her art.
Sheri and I worked well together. Her feedback on my stories always felt spot on, and she was receptive to mine. She’d suggest something and I’d think, “Of course!” I’d suggest something and she’d say, “Love it!” During that time, Sheri and I also explored ways to partner on projects outside of the group. We thought about creating an early reader series together and/or collaborating on an adult coloring book.
So, yes, I knew Sheri Roloff and her body of work.
The other thing I knew (or at least liked to think I knew) was what kind of picture books kids liked to read “over and over again.” In 2013 I created a blog called Picture Book House. In each post, I wrote a short review and longer story about how my kids interacted with the book I was featuring. This story highlighted what it was about the book that made it read-it-again-worthy. “What it was” wasn’t always the same, but when I watched my kids experience a book, it also wasn’t hard to identify. I became obsessed with these kinds of books. Books that didn’t get lost on the shelf; books that we read over and over again—often at breakfast, lunch, even dinner, and always before nap and bed.
These books, I used to love to say, were infiltrating our very souls–helping my kids to understand themselves and the world, and, perhaps most importantly at this age, fall in love with reading. There were Caldecott winners and NOT Caldecott winners, but every book I wrote about received 5 stars on the read-it-again scale.
Fast forward to last spring—again. I KNEW read-it-again-worthy books. And THAT was where I needed to start:
With a read-it-again-worthy book BY Sheri Roloff.
What I’ve learned between then and now about publishing sometimes causes me to stop and catch my breath (literally, for a second I can get so wound up I can’t breath), and I’ve been asked several times, “Have you done this before?” or “How do you know what to do?” Well, my best answer is this: I read books; I researched online; I talked to people; and, for better or worse, placed a large amount of stock on my gut. I trust it.
More specifically, I worked with an intellectual property attorney to create a publishing agreement; I learned how to negotiate and acquire projects; I learned how to create budgets and do our accounting; I learned about how books are printed and have built relationships with two U.S.—based printers, from whom I’ve requested bids. None of this is rocket science, and it (budgeting excluded!) felt simpatico with my background in literacy education. The bottom line is this: I am determined for KWiL to succeed, and the only way that will happen is if I figure it all out…with a team (see next Reflection).
Reflection #2: Collaboration is the KEY to Picture Book Perfection
The story of Sheri’s I initially thought KWiL would publish is called Run, Cheetah, Run.
But several weeks after Sheri agreed to sign, I was clicking around on her website and saw an illustration I had never seen before: Two dinosaurs—making a pizza.
I called her up. “Do you have a story about these dinosaurs,” I asked?
“Well, yes, I do,” she answered.
“We need to publish a book about them.”
Sheri agreed, and that is how Hide & Go Seek-A-Saurus became KWiL’s first book.
During this time, Sheri also set to work designing KWiL’s logo. KWiL is a combination of my kids’ first names (Katy and Will), with the obvious allusion to quill, and so I had asked Sheri to explore some feathered logo designs. In hindsight—how boring!
Which must have been exactly what Sheri was thinking. She sent back a few feathered options, and this porcupine:
“Of course!” I thought.
Our porcupine (name TBD) was the perfect way to move farther away from the quill cliché, and what a fantastic image for branding a children’s book publishing company.
It quickly became clear that Sheri was going to be so much more than an author/illustrator at KWiL. Ever so easily our conversations deepened and extended beyond her book. I’d run acquisition and editorial questions by her. She designed our sell sheets. Early summer, we realized how incredible it would be to have an in-house book designer, and by mid-summer, KWiL was officially at team of two.
By the end of September, with almost 10 projects in the pipeline, we realized what we really needed to be was a team of three. Thus began our courtship of Molly Damon, who, we knew, was the final missing piece to this start up. None of our work would matter if we couldn’t sell the books. Molly, we knew, could work wonders in marketing and sales. We discussed over coffee. We analyzed over wine, and thankfully, Molly said, “Yes.”
And so back to my second reflection—collaboration is key. The perfect picture book is the result of collaboration between many people in a publishing company. Of course the author, or author/illustrator, is paramount. There would (obviously) be no project without her. BUT, what is perhaps unknown is that every single word, illustration, color choice, design layout—every single everything—in a picture book has been reviewed, discussed, quite possibly edited, over, and over, and over again by a team of people all contributing their unique and important perspective.
Without a tough editor, pushing, pushing, pushing, without an expert in design, tweaking, tweaking, tweaking, without a copyeditor, catching, catching, catching, and without a marketing expert, who has a pulse on the market and an eye for what will sell, a picture book could easily fall short.
We believe, not because I’m trying to be pompous, but because we have to—we’ve laid it all on the line now—that our hard work has resulted in a perfect picture book: the kind that will leave kids begging, “Read it again!”
Now, we know this doesn’t mean that everybody will love it, and that’s ok. But what we do believe is that we have created a product of exceptional quality that can legitimately compete in the marketplace, and we got here by working together.
Reflection # 3: Pacing is Paramount
Although there is a long list of specific picture-book making lessons learned from this project, one that, as an editor, stands out most to me is how absolutely ESSENTIAL it is to get pacing right. Picture books are meant to be read aloud, and so every word choice, as well as word placement (top of page, bottom of page) and format (CAPS, italics) also has to be perfect.
To check for pacing, I have to have a hard copy of the book in my hand. Page turns are pivotal and impossible to get a feel for on a screen. So, every time there was a new/updated version of the book, I would print off a black and white copy, fold the papers as they needed to be folded and staple the book together. I would start by reading it in my head, and then always, always read it out loud.
If there was any single word, or any spot where I hesitated—even for a second—something just didn’t sound right/feel right/make sense, we went back and addressed it.
The day that we read through and didn’t pause once was the day I realized I would be particularly proud of Hide & Go Seek-A-Saurus’spacing.
Which leads me to my final Reflection:
Reflection #4: It’s Not Finished Until the Books Are in Hand
There were so many times when we (or at least I) thought, “We’re done!” only to catch one more thing. A lot of these “things” were due to the fact that this was our first time through. There won’t be so many “things” with our next book, but a motto that drove us was, “It’s never too late to get it right.” So, even when it would have been easier to say, “Ah, it’s fine,” we listened to the advice of our BETA readers (THANK YOU, you know who you are), our copyeditors (a special shout out here to my Mom, Sue Nies, former English teacher and grammar guru extraordinaire, who has spent countless hours reading and re-reading this book), or our gut—I just think THIS would work better.
Reflection #4 read as it may, and no, it’s not really, really done until the books are in hand, there is a sense of completion when the files go to the printer—which is what happened yesterday, and why I am writing this blog post today.
BONUS Reflection #5: Sheri Roloff
When you spend so much time on a project, it’s impossible not to get a bit verklempted when it wraps up, especially when you think about the people you’ve grown near and dear to during the process.
To be a successful picture book author/illustrator you have to be a creative genius. You also have to have grit. (You want me to change what? Now? I can only imagine Sheri thinking that at least once). You have to have endurance. (It takes hours upon HOURS to illustrate a book).
Sheri has all of these things—the creative genius, the grit, the endurance, and she brings them not just to her books, but to all of KWiL’s projects and corporate branding.
Sheri’s attention to detail is exquisite, her sense of humor infectious, her commitment to a deadline motivating (even at times, intimidating!)…and did I mention…she sings and plays guitar!?
I could not be luckier to have Sheri as a business partner, or more honored that Hide & Go Seek-A-Saurs is KWiL’s first book.
Sheri, cheers to you—and dreams coming true.