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An updated state-by-state look at the Who Pooped series


A few years ago, I got to wondering how many different states were covered by my Who Pooped? series, and it led to a blog post that is now obsolete, as the series has grown since then. This post updates and replaces that one.

In the beginning, each book in the series was for a specific national park, and most of those national parks were tucked securely in a single state (Yellowstone does span three states, however). As the series progressed, the books covered more ecosystems than specific parks, and sometimes those covered multiple states. That got me thinking: what states does this series cover?

Who Pooped Map 2015

So far, the series covers 19 states in 20 books — some books cover multiple states and some states have multiple books. The number of national parks, national conservation areas, national monuments, national recreation areas, and national forests is significantly larger than that. I haven’t compiled that list lately. A project for another day!

Arizona

California

Colorado

Idaho

Maine

Michigan

Minnesota

Montana

New Mexico

Nevada

New York

Oregon

South Dakota

Texas

Utah

Virginia

Washington

Wisconsin

Wyoming

 

A huge milestone in poop!


Overall, yesterday wasn’t a great day. My tea shop‘s main computer died during a Windows 10 update, our wi-fi went utterly wonky, my phone stopped making or accepting calls, I spent a bunch of time on legal documents trying to collect back wages from February & March, and the kitchen sink backed up. Plumbing is the worst.

Today, on the other hand, had a stupendous start! I was catching up on some emails, and pulled out my latest royalty statement from the lovely folks over at Farcountry Press. As I am wont to do, I started tallying up the sales numbers for each edition of Who Pooped in the Park. The total sales for the series to date? A whopping 500,853 copies!

500000 copies sold

Over half a million. I’m gobsmacked. The mere fact that I got to use the word “gobsmacked” today makes this a great day! I’m feeling so magnanimous that AT&T and Microsoft are hereby both forgiven for yesterday’s fiascos.

When I was focused on writing specialized technical books about closed captioning, selling a few thousand copies was enough to make me happy. Ten thousand was a lofty goal. And then—just for kicks—I wrote my first book for kids. The Yellowstone edition of Who Pooped in the Park came bursting out of the gate, earning out the advance in just a few months. That edition is by far my best-selling book, being the only single title of mine to have sold over 100,000 copies.

The other Who Pooped books have followed with mixed success. A few still haven’t sold out their first printings. A few (I’m looking at you, Grand Canyon edition) have had really stellar sales. My non-poop books have also had mixed success, but I’m working on that!

When I talk to other authors of children’s books, they want to know my secret. Is it shameless self-promotion? Is it mad skills at writing and/or illustrating? Is it having the best agent in the whole wide world? While all of those things would help, here’s what I think made Who Pooped work:

  1. Being in the right place at the right time with the right idea. There’s just no substitute for this.
  2. Having a title that makes people pick up the book, and content that makes them read it.
  3. The right publisher. Farcountry doesn’t have many contacts in schools and libraries, but their deep connections in national parks and gift shops were, in my opinion, critical to the success of these books.
  4. The right editor. I’ve had a lot of different editors over the course of my writing career, and I think having Kathy Springmeyer’s advice as I worked on my first children’s book was invaluable. The single best piece of advice she ever gave me was to have my kids read the manuscript out loud to me and look for places where they stumble over words or the dialog doesn’t sound natural.
  5. Persistence and fearlessness. I was lucky. I only got turned down by one publisher on Who Pooped in the Park? before Farcountry picked it up (your loss, Globe Pequot Press!).
  6. Asking for help. Nature writer Gary Ferguson gave me a lot of good advice in the beginning, and scat & track expert Jim Halfpenny proofed my original manuscript for me. Using the publisher’s industry contacts has put me in touch with a deep pool of experts. Using those contacts made my books better.
  7. And, of course, shameless self-promotion. After you’re successful, the media calls you. When you’re getting started, you have to call them.

Agents can make a big difference, from what I hear. I can’t tell you firsthand, as I’ve never managed to land an agent myself. Here’s where I need to be more persistent. I’ve been turned down by a couple of dozen agents, but I have friends that have sent out hundreds of query letters before getting to yes. I’ll get there…

A peek inside the cashflow of writing books


I was poking around on Quora and came across an interesting juxtaposition of questions:

Quora questions screen capture

Neither of these is an unusual question. Quora is filled with people asking how to make money as an author, and other people asking how to download books without paying for them. Seeing those two questions together, though, made me realize that the two questions only need one answer:

If you want to make money writing books, then people have to pay you for them; if you want to get books for free, you have to find some non-monetary motivation for the author to create those books.

There are certainly authors who write just for the sheer pleasure of writing, and others who write for the pleasure of being published. Money is not their primary motivation. But let’s look at the rest of the authors for a moment. Where do we get our money? There are five answers to that question.

  1. The traditional publishing model
  2. Work for hire
  3. Self-publishing
  4. Vanity presses
  5. E-book only

Traditional Publishing

All cash flows to the author (although the agent takes a cut). The publisher pays the author an advance prior to publication and a royalty on each book sold. Think of the advance as a loan against future royalties. The royalty can be calculated a number of different ways: a flat amount, a percentage of the cover price, a percentage of the wholesale price, or a sliding scale. Under this model, the publisher pays for cover design, layout, editing, proofreading, copyediting, printing, marketing, and all of those other expenses required to put out a book. The e-book and print book are handled exactly the same. Most of my books were published traditionally.

Traditional publishing is hard to break into. The ease of self-publishing and its relatively low cost means a lot of authors don’t even try the traditional approach. The ones that do need a breakout success on their first book, or there will never be a second one. Low initial sales are a career-killer.

This is the pay model that non-writers find hardest to understand. I’ve had people tell me, “gee, it must be nice getting paid over and over again with royalties, even years after you wrote the book.” They don’t understand that in traditional publishing royalties are the only money the author will get. Even the advance is just royalty money that’s paid early. If someone hires a carpenter to build a shed, the carpenter gets paid when the shed is built. If an author’s book flops, the author doesn’t get paid.

An author shares risk with a publisher. A carpenter doesn’t. If an author and a carpenter put in six months of work on a project, the author may get ten times what the carpenter gets, or may get a tenth.

Work for Hire

The author is paid an hourly wage (or annual salary) to write the book. There are no royalties. This is common in business writing and textbooks, among other markets. As with traditional publishing, all money flows to the author and the author takes no risk. This model is identical for print books and e-books.

Work for hire is as hard (or as easy) as finding any other job. The author puts in the hours, delivers the product, and collects the checks.

The flip side of this is that there’s no reward for a breakout bestseller. A work-for-hire author gets paid the same whether the book sells ten copies or ten million copies.

Self-Publishing

The author is the publisher. The author pays for everything, and keeps all of the profit. It’s a lot of work, but it can pay off well with a successful book. I did this with my first two books. I had to pay up front for the whole print run, store all of the books, and handle all of the marketing and fulfillment. With Inside Captioning, I spent well over $10,000 before I made back my first penny, but my profit per book was an order of magnitude higher than my traditionally-published books. These days, with PoD (print on demand) presses, you don’t have to order thousands of copies up front, but your cost per book is significantly higher.

Self-publishing is easy to get into. The author just needs some cash (a couple of grand should do it). Unlike traditional publishing, the risk isn’t shared: the author takes all risk.

If that person who asked the first Quora question gets his or her way, that risk won’t pay off. Most authors will never recover the money they spent on self-publishing the book, and illegal e-book downloads may make the difference between making a few bucks and losing money.

Vanity Presses

Kind of like traditional publishing, except the royalty is bigger, there’s no advance, and the author pays for things up front. Depending on the vanity press you deal with, they may charge you anywhere from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand dollars, and then present you with extra charges for “set up,” cover design, layout, format conversions, ISBN/EAN assignment, proofreading, copyediting, and more. As with self-publishing, the author takes all risk.

Vanity presses are ideal for the author who just wants to write up the family history and print a few dozen to give out to the grandkids and cousins.

E-book only

There is no print edition, so nobody has to pay for things like printing, shipping, and storage. The amount of work you are willing to do yourself determines how much it costs up front, because there’s no advance. I did this with the first volume of Myths and Legends of TeaI handled the book design, cover design, format conversions, uploading, and account setup myself, and arranged for my own proofreading and editing. This meant no up-front fees to Amazon and Apple. The royalties are substantially higher than any of the other options. There are also services that will do many of those things for you, either for a fee up front or a percentage of your royalties.

The author bears all of the risk, but with such low up-front costs, there isn’t all that much risk to bear. The upside isn’t as big as with the combo print/e-book approaches, but it’s incredibly easy to do.

In this pay model, bootleg downloads really impact the author. There are no hard-copy sales, so royalties on the e-books are the only way the author can make money.

 

We’re living in an interesting world. There are authors and artists using websites like Patreon to earn a pretty decent living. People are willing to make donations to their favorite author just to keep getting new books. At the same time, sites like Quora are full of people trying to figure out how to stiff authors out of a six buck e-book sale.

As authors, we’re not fooling ourselves. No matter what DRM (digital rights management, a.k.a. copyright protection) those Kindle, Nook, iPad, and Kobo files have, it will be broken in no time flat. If our books aren’t available on some pirate website, it’s not because Amazon prevented it from happening, it’s because nobody cared enough to bootleg our books.

It’s no longer enough for an author to write a book, send it to the publisher, and get started writing the next one. We have to be actively involved in marketing, and we have to figure out alternate ways to make money from the book if sales aren’t high enough. It can be frustrating, but it’s today’s reality. There are over 50,000 new books published every month, and that doesn’t even count the e-books with no print edition. It’s tough to break out from the pack, but it can be done, and new authors do it every month.

This whole blog post really boils down to one thing:

If you want your favorite authors to write more books, buy copies of their other books.

Lest you think these feelings are self-serving, most of my books aren’t even available in e-book form, and I doubt that I’ve lost much income due to theft or bootlegging. But I believe that people deserve to be paid for their work. I confess: I played with someone else’s copy of Minecraft for a while. Then I realized I enjoyed it and wanted to see it improved and maintained, so I bought my own copy — and then bought a copy for my grandson.

Please, go to a library and read books for free. That’s what libraries are for. If you prefer, borrow books from friends. And when you find authors you like, buy copies of their books. New copies, since they don’t get paid for used copies. When it comes right down to it, the best way to support the arts is with your wallet.

More ABA bookseller collaboration: Lots of participation and a new book banning board


About six weeks ago, I wrote about an idea that I gave to the American Booksellers Association for a collaborative forum where indie bookstores could share ideas for book displays. The ABA bounced it back into my lap (good job on the delegation there, Sydney Jarrard!) and so I went ahead and ran with it. I made a couple of Pinterest boards and wrote a blog post, and then asked Sydney to do a bit of publicizing.

I started with two boards: Effective Bookstore Displays and Creative Bookstore Windows. I seeded each board with a few pictures from my store and went looking for help. After all, it’s not a collaboration unless there’s more than one participant! I ended the article with the line, “There are a few of my pictures to get the ball rolling. Let’s see how many more we can get on here in the next month. Challenge issued. Challenge accepted?” It certainly was.

Sydney included something in the ABA member newsletter, Bookselling This Week, and booksellers started showing up. Then it was picked up by Shelf Awareness, and just a few days ago the Christian Science Monitor ran an article. Now, each of the boards has almost 300 followers, and pictures are being placed by a half-dozen collaborators. I’m absolutely thrilled with the progress! Now, it seems like time for a bit of an expansion.

Pinterest

I’ve now added a third board to the collection: Book Banning & Censorship. Being both an author and a bookseller, I’m not a fan of censorship. I’ve written about it, spoken about it, made infographics about it, and now started a Pinterest board about it. So far, it only has 87 followers and a dozen pins. Here’s your new challenge: let’s see if we can have 500 followers and 200 pins on the censorship board by Banned Books Week (Sept 21-27, 2014). This one transcends the bookselling world, so I’m going to try to get librarians and authors to jump in and participate.

Become a part of the process!

To join in the process, visit the board(s) you are interested in and follow them. Then leave a comment here on this blog post using the same name you used on Pinterest. I’ll authorize you to pin, and you can start adding pictures from your own store.

I’m not a big fan of rules, but I’d like everyone to please do two things:

  1. Focus on ideas that everyone can use, instead of display products that you’d like them to buy.
  2. Try to put each picture on the most appropriate board only — let’s not get the same picture on all three boards, or get window pics on the display board.

Thank you! You do not have to be a member of the ABA to participate, but why on Earth would you have an indie bookstore and not want to join? They provide an awful lot of benefits for a very reasonable level of annual dues.

It’s a two way street! There are a lot of good ideas out there, and we want to get as many people participating as we possibly can.

Banned book pin by Porter Square Books

Here’s a great banned book pin by Porter Square Books on the shared boards.

A new book, and a state-by-state look at the series


NOTE: The information in this post is obsolete, but it’s all been brought up to date in a new post from 2017.

My 23rd book — 18th in the Who Pooped? series — is now officially out. In the beginning, each book in the series was for a specific national park, and most of those national parks were tucked securely in a single state (Yellowstone does span three states, however). As the series progressed, the books covered more ecosystems than specific parks, and sometimes those covered multiple states. That got me thinking: what states does this series cover?

Who Pooped Map 2013

So far, the series covers 18 states in 18 books — a coincidence, since some books cover multiple states and some states have multiple books. The number of national parks, national conservation areas, national monuments, national recreation areas, and national forests is significantly larger than that. I haven’t compiled that list lately. A project for another day!

Arizona

California

Colorado

Idaho

Maine

Michigan

Minnesota

Montana

New Mexico

Nevada

Oregon

South Dakota

Texas

Utah

Virginia

Washington

Wisconsin

Wyoming

So, given that my publisher is most interested in covering well-traveled areas, what do you think should come next? The next one is pretty well decided, although we’re not announcing it until a contract is signed. What should the 20th book be? I’d love to hear some feedback?

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