The Entrepreneurial Spirit: "Experiment I Will!" Exploring New Paths to Publishing with Rebecca Emberley


Why would a “successful” author/illustrator, working with many of the big trade publishers for more than thirty-five years, want to start up an independent publishing imprint? Why take such a risk?  These are just a few of the questions I’ve recently  posed to my wonderfully talented colleague Rebecca Emberley, who has authored and authored/illustrated more than twenty-five picture books, and who launched her own imprint, Two Little Birds  and independently published two books thus far – THE ITSY BITSY SPIDER by Rebecca Emberley and Ed Emberley and FLATLAND by David Sayre and Rebecca Emberley.

I am very interested in and excited by the myriad of options authors and artists have for presenting their work to readers and am particularly interested in the reasons why creative artists who seem to be having a healthy career within the traditional publishing route might decide to publish in new ways—self-publishing, indy publishing, hybrid publishing—and under new models—crowd-funding, profit-sharing, and the like. Therefore, I’m so pleased and honored Rebecca Emberley has agreed to share her thoughts on her own journey with us on “our stories, ourselves.”  Welcome, Rebecca!

Success is subjective and risk is necessary. Especially in the arts.

One thing of which I am sure is that change is the only constant. Most of your readers are undoubtedly well aware of the plethora of angst-ridden articles predicting both the impending doom of trade publishing and the get-rich-quick anecdotal evidences of digital publishing.More picture books will be published this year than last. If you have a children’s book you want to publish, you will need to stand out among more than 20,000 others.  Most will fall by the wayside. Fewer than 5% of us make a living at this. If you are a female illustrator your chances are 70% less.  

The industry has changed in so many ways, from the corporatizing of publishing houses to the technological obsession of “e” everything. I have seen the number of my sales increase, and my royalties decrease. So, the why of this story is that things change, this industry has and will continue to change, and I believe that to remain relevant you’re going to have to makes some changes as well. I want to be compensated fairly for the work I do. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think every artist is owed a living, but if someone else is making money off your work, so should you. If someone is using your art to look at or listen to, you should be compensated. 

Picture book making is a family business for me. My brother and I grew up the children of two artists and children’s books were the “business” that kept my father in his studio every day. But that doesn’t mean my books will necessarily sell better than anyone else’s. And that doesn’t mean I can sit back and not stay engaged or involved in my own career. I’ve observed, I’ve expanded into licensing, I’ve created other projects, but picture book making is a job I know, I was born into it.  Times have changed. Publishing has changed, and with that change must come decisions.

Should I stay or should I go? I’ve been asking myself this question for several years now. Given that, I got to asking myself what can I change about the way I’m getting books into the hands of children?  Bricks and mortar. One of the things holding back the big guys from thinking outside the box, is that they are wed to those great big expensive boxes, in unholy matrimony. A lot of the profit from publishing books goes to support real estate. So,let’s eliminate the real estate. How? By staying small enough to work somewhere that I already work. Don’t expand my footprint. That means I need to use freelancers to do what I cannot, or do not want to do. Fantastic news about the changes in publishing, there are a lot of highly qualified, imaginative people from trade now working freelance. Distribution? Lots of different options, more every day.

When first thinking about publishing in new ways, there were a lot of things to consider. I had text and artwork that were completed for THE ITSY BITSY SPIDER. I had an audience. I had a reputation. I did not have a nest egg. So if I was going to publishing this book in a new way, how was I going to pay for the up-front costs? Even if I was extremely confident that I could make this one work, which I was (I am a worst case scenario person. I am not afraid to fail, so when I embark on a project I do to the worst case scenario, which would be me selling discounted copies of SPIDER at flea markets until the investment was recouped. Totally do-able.), I hate to borrow money and I didn’t want to rely on a single investor. So I turned to crowd-sourcing, pre-selling the book through Kickstarter. I am a huge fan of Kickstarter and I became familiar with the platform through the musical side of my family when my daughter used it to fund her last album, pre-selling CDs, LPs, and downloads. I chose to attempt to raise just the print costs, because time was short. I had an opportunity to get SPIDER into a Spring 2013 catalog with a distributor and things got moving quickly.

Creating the capital was important, but MOST important was proof of concept. I wanted to find out if people were interested in the book enough, and confident enough in what I was trying to do, to lay down cold, hard cash essentially sight unseen. They were. I had to run the Kickstarter campaign during the holidays when peoples’ attentions were drawn to so many things. In the end, it was a knuckle-biter. It was a lot of time and energy spent on social media. But to me the results were astounding. Fewer than one third of the pledges came from family and friends. Per capita, more than half of the pledges were from total strangers not involved with the children’s book industry. There are loads of details involved in running a successful crowd-funding campaign. You need a compelling video. You need attractive rewards. You need to have the ability to work Facebook and Twitter and other social networks. It was a lot of work and it was worth the effort, rewarding us with a community spirit, new fans, and a new perspective about getting things done in an unconventional way. (Reference Rebecca’s Kickstarter campaign here)

Can everyone do this? No. Should everyone do this? No. Can everyone get published in the trade? No. Should everyone self-publish? No. I have a unique perspective and forty years in the industry. Can you try something different? Yes. There is no single approach. There is no right or wrong way.

Here are some conclusions I’ve come to over the past year:
  • Forgetting artistry for a minute, let’s talk numbers: If you are already a published author illustrator, selling more than 10,000 copies a year with a following (no matter how many titles), you are already comfortable with social media and some degree of self-promotion, and you want to experiment, I would encourage you to invest in your future by publishing with a very small press or self-publishing. Yes, it will require up front monies. Your return will be worth it either way. Your other publishers won’t mind.
  • If you are an author/illustrator who goes out a lot and speaks to schools (more than ten small venues or five large), I would also encourage you to experiment. The profit in hand-selling is huge.
  • ALWAYS use a professional designer and editor. It’s a small investment up front for a big difference on the back end.
  • If you have friends and colleagues in the business, consider a co-op approach to publishing.
  • It’s critical to determine for yourself what success means to you. There is no wrong answer, just be clear for yourself what your goals are.
  • If you are just starting out, do the math and see what is right for you. If you don’t know the figures, ask someone else who knows.
  • No matter what approach to publishing you choose, you need to be doing self-promotion. Without it there is little point in publishing except to say that you are published.
  • Be SURE that you LOVE this. Be sure that your book is the best product you can create. It’s not all bunnies and badgers, it’s hard work. It’s a business.

I’m not sure where Two Little Birds will be in five years. The first eighteen months have been exhausting, but I’m learning every day and it's getting better. Last year we did one title, this year we have six. We expanded from picture books to activity books, which excites me. We changed distributors for a better fit stylistically, and to reach a broader market.

When I began, I felt the need to be perfect, then I realized that doesn’t exist. I don’t have to follow any rules (OK, I do need ISBN numbers and barcodes!) or fulfill any expectations. I can take the time to find the readers and put my books in front of them. I can cross-market. I can afford to sell fewer books and make more money. I can afford to give books away. It’s an experiment, and experiment I will!

People will still buy picture books. How they buy them, where they buy them, may change, but kids love books—until we tell them they don’t....

The support I have received both inside and outside the publishing community has been overwhelming. I believe that climbing the ladder of success is meaningless unless you turn and extend a hand to the person behind you and share what you have learned. To that end I am happy to answer any questions that I can, offer advice or encouragement (or discouragement if needed). It’s a jungle out there.