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?
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!
- Who Pooped on the Colorado Plateau?
- Who Pooped in the Sonoran Desert?
- Who Pooped in the Park? Grand Canyon National Park
- Who Pooped in the Cascades?
- Who Pooped in the Park? Death Valley National Park
- Who Pooped in the Park? Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
- Who Pooped in the Park? Yosemite National Park
- Who Pooped in the Redwoods?
- Who Pooped in the Sonoran Desert?
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 a former employer, 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!
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:
- Being in the right place at the right time with the right idea. There’s just no substitute for this.
- Having a title that makes people pick up the book, and content that makes them read it.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!).
- 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.
- 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…
Lots of people want to have written; they don’t want to write. In other words, they want to see their name on the front cover of a book and their grinning picture on the back. But this is what comes at the end of a job, not at the beginning.
I’m one of those authors that enjoys the writing and that euphoric moment when you pull the author copy out of the package and hold the fruits of your labors in your hands. I don’t agree with the last part of Elizabeth George’s quote, though. For most writers, that isn’t the end of the job. There is still a great deal of work to be done promoting your book. It is, however, the transition from a solitary work shared only with your editor (when said editor can take a few minutes away from laughing maniacally and sharpening red pencils with a switchblade*) to something your cadres of adoring fans can enjoy.
Some of the real fun of being an author happens during the writing. That moment when you sit back and realize you’ve crafted the perfect sentence. When you figure out how to resolve that nagging inconsistency in the backstory. When you catch your botched pluperfect before the aforementioned editor sees it.
For us extroverts, though, most of the fun happens after the book hits the streets. We love standing in front a roomful of people to read our work, sitting at a book signing table with a line of fans in front of us, seeing our tweets shared far and wide.
Yesterday, I got to experience a joyful moment in the gloaming, that brief period between the arrival of the first books and the start of the hectic marketing campaign.
Almost a year ago, while working on Who Pooped in Central Park, I realized that I needed the kids to encounter a bird expert in the park. I toyed with different ideas for the character until I was struck with an epiphany: I know the perfect person!
Dominique Paulus is an artist who paints, among other things, birds. We have one of her original paintings hanging on our living room wall (“Woman Power,” seen at right). She’s been my friend for years, and we’ve chatted quite a bit about birds when she’s in my bookstore shopping for bird books.
So I wrote Dominique into the book and had her spend several pages telling the children about the birds in Central Park. I sent my illustrator (the incomparable Robert Rath) a photo of Dominique and she became a part of the plot. I couldn’t resist hinting to her that I had a surprise coming, but I did somehow restrain myself and not tell her what I’d done. Yesterday, on the official release date of the book, I gave her a copy of the book and showed her the pages that featured her.
Things that may seem minor to us, like a dedication or acknowledgement in the front of a book, mean a lot to people. Watching Dominique’s face when she saw herself in this book was a wonderful thing. As writers, we have many ways to change people’s lives. It’s up to us how we use them.
* To Will Harmon, my editor at Farcountry Press: I’m sure you don’t actually sharpen your red pencils with a switchblade. I’m guessing you use an axe.
Who Pooped in the Redwoods, which is on its way to your favorite stores and websites, is the 19th book in the Who Pooped series. Just like its predecessors, it is focused on the wide open spaces, especially national and state parks. The next book, which I’m hoping will be out by Christmas, is going in a completely different direction.
We’re moving the series from the big national parks to a small city park, a paltry 843 acres in the middle of the largest population center in the United States. That’s right, the next book will be set in New York City’s Central Park!
I’m not going to give away too much just yet, as I just signed the contract last week and things may change a bit. I will tell you a few things, though:
First, this will be the first Who Pooped book that won’t feature Michael and Emily. I’m introducing a new family that lives in New York City, and the book will focus on the adventures of the kids in Central Park, without Mom and Dad there playing teacher the whole time.
We’re also changing the art style a bit, going for a more urban and edgy look.
But what animals can I include when the book is set right smack in the middle of a huge city? A lot! Central Park is teeming with wildlife, including rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, rats, chipmunks, opossums, bats, starlings, herons, geese, gulls, crows, pigeons, frogs, turtles, and more!
With the release of the Central Park book, I will finally have a book set in every state where I’ve lived*, and we’re filling in some of those big gaps on the east coast of the U.S. Here’s what the coverage map will look like:
* Trivia for the day: I was born in New York state.
Last month, I finalized the manuscript for my 19th Who Pooped in the Park book, which will be called Who Pooped in the Redwoods.
Our intrepid regulars, Michael and Emily, will be hitting the road with Mom & Dad to visit Redwoods National and State Parks in California. Along the way, they’ll meet up with a host of critters, some of which we’ve met in other Who Pooped books, and a few new ones as well, like mountain beavers, fishers, tree voles, and ringneck snakes.
The book is scheduled to hit the streets in the spring of 2015. That may seem like a long time, considering I signed the contract back in July, but there’s a reason for that. I write these books in a grid: page numbers on the left, then a column for descriptions of the illustrations, one for the text on the page, and another for the “Straight Poop” sidebars. The manuscript comes out looking like this:
When I had the manuscript done, I had two people proofread it before submitting it to Will Harmon, my editor at Farcountry Press, who went through it with a fine-toothed comb. He found a few issues, and I fixed most of them right away and argued with him about a couple of others. He does tend to be right most of the time, but I still win sometimes!
Each book is exactly 48 pages long. I put a lot of time and thought into arranging the story so that there will big beautiful color pictures, including two-page spreads, illustrating everything the family finds. But it takes illustrator Rob Rath even longer to actually draw those pictures. As I write this, Rob is sketching up his rough drafts for all of the pages. When he’s done, those will go back to Will, who will check everything carefully and then send it to me. I will look at all of the animals, scats, tracks, plants, and other content to make sure it matches the text and accurately reflects what that area looks like.
My books focus on ten main animals that appear in the scat & track guide at the end, but those aren’t the only animals in the books! I try to find a lot of other species that live in the ecosystem I’m writing about and work them in to the text and illustrations. This means Rob has to draw dozens of different plant and animal species in each book. Just to give you a feeling for it, here are the animals included in Who Pooped in the Redwoods:
- Black bear
- Black-tailed deer
- Brush rabbit
- California Grizzly Bear
- Gray fox
- Mountain Beaver
- Mountain lion
- Northern flying squirrel
- River otter
- Roosevelt elk
- Sonoma tree vole
- Spotted Skunk
- Striped Skunk
- Townsend’s big-eared bat
- Bald eagle
- Brown pelican
- Great blue heron
- Northern spotted owl
- Steller’s jay
- Northwestern ringneck snake
- Pacific giant salamander
- Rough-skinned newt
- Chinook Salmon
- Banana slug
- Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly
- Sequoia Pitch Moth
- Silver-spotted Skipper
- Western Tailed Blue butterfly
- Western Tiger Swallowtail
- Yellow-spotted millipede
And that doesn’t even count the plants! Not to mention the fact that Rob has a tendency to sneak one or two of his favorite critters into the background here and there, which makes it even more fun.
Will and I probably won’t find much during our proofing pass – this is the 13th book Rob and I have done together – but there will likely be a few little things. Once Rob has made any required changes, he’ll do the final drawings and color everything. Then the book goes through one more proofing pass, which will involve a few more sets of eyes. The bar codes will be added to the cover and everything will be finalized. That’s when the book is sent out to be printed, which takes even more time.
By the time the book hits stores, it will have been almost a year since we started. I hope you’ll find it worth the wait!