Today I’ve got a guest post from indie children’s author Mike Sundy.
Hi, I’m Mike Sundy and I’m an indie children’s book author. Jane asked me to blog about how I got started and what made me take the leap to pursuing writing full-time. I’ll also chat about how I started my own kids’ book company, make my own books, and handle the management/publicity work.
Growing up, I lived all over the U.S. My Dad was an Air Force pilot so we moved a lot. That meant that my only constant friends were my siblings and books. I was just a reader until eighth grade, when I developed a huge crush on Mindy Jordan. We were studying poetry so I decided to write a cringe-worthy poem where I compared Mindy to a chrysanthemum. I enjoyed putting my feelings on paper so I wrote more bad poetry. I sent these love poems to Mindy, as only a naive junior high boy could. To my surprise and delight, she agreed to “go out” with me because of my poems. Of course, I had no idea how to actually talk to the most popular girl in school (or any girl), so our relationship lasted all of three days. But I had learned that writing could open doors.
I wrote more poetry throughout high school and college, but came from a practical family. So, I double-majored in Great Books and Computer Applications. I worked in various I.T. jobs in Silicon Valley for several years and tried to ignore the gnawing feeling in my soul that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do. My wonderful wife Tara became pregnant with our first child right before I was laid off. Those two things together caused me to take a step back and look at my career. I took an aptitude test and one of the jobs it said I was suited for was “playwright.” It was like getting permission to consider an impractical job. I decided to try screenwriting, thinking it was similar to playwriting but paid better so I could support my growing family. That was a long road and I’m still trying to break into screenwriting fourteen years later. But that was really the moment I set down the path of becoming a professional writer.
I wrote script after script at night after the kids went to bed. My last I.T. job was at Pixar. Pixar was a wonderful place for me since they encouraged creativity and even had writing classes for their employees. Being burnt out on screenwriting, I decided to try a children’s book writing class with the effervescent Lissa Rovetch. I quickly learned that children’s books have their own craft. It turns out my background in screenwriting and poetry helped because children’s books are often brief, emotional, and visual. At last I had found a type of writing that really suited me.
I wrote several children’s book manuscripts and talked to a few publishers. Everyone I spoke with was complimentary but said the books didn’t fit their slate. I had a publisher tell me my Part of My Heart manuscript was too simple and slight because it was shorter than a normal picture book. It was an understandable conventional reaction, but that’s all the story needed. I also worked with an editor on another story and did nine drafts of it, but each draft seemed to get the story further away from what I intended. When I workshopped it multiple times, everyone liked my original version better. I also found out that children’s book creators are typically paid very little and that it’s more of a passion project than a full-time career. And I talked to another friend who had run a traditional children’s publishing label – one of their books only sold a few hundred copies. I figured I could do that on my own, so why was I chasing the approval of a publisher?
I decided to self-publish Part of My Heart and give it away for free. I partnered with Sansu, a Korean illustrator classmate, to illustrate the book since I felt her child-like and lyrical style would be a good fit. We made the book between the two of us with free tools and put it out on iBooks. It had a few hundred downloads at first, then trickled down to a couple of downloads per month. But then it made a Denmark iBooks store best free books list and downloads jumped up 10x overnight. Over the next few months it climbed higher and had another day where it hit the Top Ten Free books on the U.S. iBooks store. Downloads jumped another 10x overnight! The book that a publisher called “too simple and slight” now has over 37,000 downloads and 900 five-star reviews. It felt great to have readers respond to our work and some even confessed to crying.
Emboldened by our experiment, I collaborated on a new picture book series with my brother Jonathan Sundy. He’s a talented character designer and we had been looking to do a book together. We retooled my abandoned concept called Disaster Cowboy and turned it into a tall tale picture book. Pancho Bandito and the Amarillo Armadillo hit #1 on the iBooks Kids store and #1 Hot New Release in its Amazon categories. Now I had proven to myself I could put out high-quality indie books and that people would even pay for them. The next step was a big gut check: I quit my cushy Pixar job.
I left Pixar in February 2016 and have been writing full-time ever since. I started an indie kids’ book company called Legbug. Since leaving, we’ve published the next book in our series, Pancho Bandito and the Avocado Desperadoes. It was selected by Apple Editorial to be on their front page banner near huge authors like Raina Telgemeier and Dav Pilkey. We’re now working on the third Pancho Bandito book and I’m collaborating with another Pixar artist on a standalone book called Runaway House. Writing full-time has been very spiritually rewarding so far, if not that financially rewarding. I also still write screenplays and am working on my first middle-grade novel series.
Running a company has been a learning experience. Once we “finish” the book, the publishing and marketing side takes a few months. The publishing side includes things like proofing the colors of our paperback, tuning Amazon metadata keywords, preparing iBooks pre-orders, creating new backmatter pages, generating affiliate links, and dozens of other details. But the marketing takes even longer. It includes writing social media messages, communicating with our mailing list, running Facebook ads, doing podcast interviews, setting up giveaways, participating in book fairs, and contacting blogs. It’s fun but a flurry of activity that takes time away from more creative pursuits. But that’s the price of being an indie publishing company. It has been a long journey from writing lovesick adolescent poems to writing and publishing best-selling indie children’s books. But I get to write every day and spend more time with my kids. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
To check out our books or follow along with our indie kids’ book company blog, visit http://legbug.com.
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Mike!