Things are going well for author Tom Watson. He wrote a book for his kids called Stick Dog Wants a Hamburger. They liked it, so he wrote another, and another, and another. Then he signed up with BookBaby for worldwide distribution. Next thing we knew, he had four different titles appearing in the iBookstore’s top-10 bestselling children’s book section. Editors at Harper Collins took notice. Now he’s got a book deal! In this interview, Tom kindly shares his experience, wisdom, and enthusiasm for unique voices in independent publishing.
1. How long have you been writing? Are you a full-time writer?
I’ve always been a writer. I graduated with a degree in Political Science. I like to say I’m one of the rare political science majors who actually got a job in political science. I worked for U.S. Senator John Glenn and also worked as the Ohio governor’s Chief Speechwriter toward the end of his term. I left politics and did financial writing and have spent the past decade or so concentrating on advertising and marketing as a freelancer. Right now, I’m keeping a couple of my most important clients but focusing primarily on the Stick Dog books and other projects for kids.
My most important job is as a full-time dad. Mary and I have two grade-schoolers.
2. What was the inspiration behind creating Stick Dog?
I had written and illustrated a few traditional picture books for my own kids. In fact, I made four of those books available through BookBaby: Kangarooster and Vampire Bass are for sale for $1.99 and When Cows Fly and Garbage! Monster! Burp! are free. They were really keepsakes more than anything. I didn’t envision doing anything with them. Like many parents, I didn’t like a lot of the books that were available. There were too many movie and TV tie-ins. I thought, ‘I’m a writer. I’ll just write the kinds of books I’d like my kids to read.’ I thought much of the stuff out there was ‘written down’ to young readers and I always try to ‘write up’ to kids.
As our kids got older, they started reading longer books. And it was just a natural progression for me to do the same thing – write something longer form that they might like. When I got the narrative voice just how I wanted it for Stick Dog, I remember thinking, ‘Hmm, you know this is pretty good.’ And I don’t always think what I write is good, by the way.
The books are all about five dogs and their misadventures when they try to find something to eat. The narrator goes off on crazy tangents and the dogs do a lot of goofball things. When the reader reviews started rolling in I realized that I was right – I had hit on something that young readers and a lot of parents were enjoying and laughing along with. I like to think of the books as unique, but a few people just find them weird … which I take some pleasure in for some reason.
Anyway, I knew I was onto something when kids started e-mailing their own drawings of Stick Dog and making suggestions for what kind of food they should discover and search for in the next book. The first book is about their hunt for hamburgers and the second is about their search for frankfurters.
3. After releasing the eBook, what were your career goals for your writing?
Nothing really changed when I released the eBooks, to be honest. I did it more just to share the stories than anything else. Half of my books are available for free, after all. The others are a whopping $1.99. I thought I might make a couple of bucks and maybe be able to splurge for some Thai take-out once a month from the royalties or something.
I had never submitted anything to a traditional publisher. And, frankly, I don’t think the Stick Dog books would ever get through the front door of most traditional publishers. The Stick Dog books and the style – the narrative voice, oddball humor, longer-form and primitive illustrations – are just too far out there to survive the reading piles most editors need to sift through.
And that’s one of the things I absolutely love about the eBook and BookBaby model. It allows new voices, stories and techniques to be shared. I think this is especially important for young readers. I think it’s important for kids to have access to all kinds of original work. You never know what a young reader will latch onto and love to read. It encourages reading from their side. And it fosters innovation and experimenting from the writing side of things. And I think that’s the best thing about the whole model.
4. What do you think your experience tells us about where the publishing industry is headed?
I think the debate between eBooks and traditional books and which will survive or dominate is kind of funny. I think there’s plenty of room for both. To me, it’s all about sharing stories with the widest audience possible. Maybe that’s because my focus is on kids’ books. But now that I know there are young people – and parents – out there who appreciate my work, I really want to keep that going.
5. How did Harper Collins find you?
A couple of the editors at Harper Collins had discovered the Stick Dog books through their own iPad reading. They liked the stories and the voice themselves and then they read the books to their own kids. A little at-home test-marketing, I think. And the kids were cracking up at the stories. So they tried to find me, which wasn’t easy.
They tracked me down through some blog posts that parents and kids had written about the Stick Dog books. Some readers have written some really nice things about the books. I think they did some Googling on the titles first. Then they used Facebook to ultimately find me. Stick Dog has his own Facebook page, believe it or not (first name: ‘StickDog,’ last name ‘Says’). There are a lot of Tom Watsons in the world, so that was a bit of a challenge, I think. It turns out I’m not the professional golfer. And if you ever saw me swing a golf club, that would become obvious right away.
6. What are your expectations now that you are working with a traditional publisher and no longer independent?
I’m well aware that the publishing world is littered with good ideas that didn’t work out. So, I’m not dreaming very big at all. The folks I’m working with at Harper Collins are people I really respect and like. And it is a two-book deal, so I’m comfortable that they’re committed to the books. And the deal is really just about Stick Dog, so my picture books are going to stay in the independent realm for now. And I like the idea of working in both those worlds.
I’m also looking forward to going back to the books, lengthening them a bit and adding a couple new twists. It will be fun to re-visit them, I don’t do that very often. I’m also looking forward to fixing a couple of things. I’ve found five typos and I even switched the gender of one of the dogs for about a page and a half in the first book. Those kinds of things drive me absolutely nuts. I will benefit, I think, from a good proofreader.
7. Did you struggle with the decision to sign a book deal?
Not really. Like I said, I really like the Harper Collins people I’m working with. That made a big difference. I also don’t have the resources or the gumption to self-promote. It’s just not something I’m very good at.
If the goal is to get the stories into the hands of more young readers and give them a bed-time laugh and make them think a little bit, then it makes perfect sense to make the books more accessible. And, of course, they’ll be available digitally, as well. So it’s not like we are losing that in the process.
8. What advice do you have for writers who are venturing out into the world of self-publishing?
I’m not going to pretend to know anything. I think I just happened to create a character, story and voice that people think is distinct and funny and good for young readers. But I will say this: I think self-publishing allows writers to write bigger. It allows them to be innovative with subject matter, narrative voice, everything. And I think that’s an idea worth pursuing and discovering.
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