Saturday, April 13, 2013

A. J. Cosmo: Monstrous Success in the Kindle Store!

A.J. Cosmo has been on the Kids' EBook Bestseller List for twelve weeks. His book, The Monster That Ate My Socks, first showed up in the top ten of Amazon's Children and Young Adult section on November 17th. It stayed there through December, January, much of February, and on into March, getting as high as the #3 spot.

All that time I was not able to find contact information for A.J. In fact, he was on the author wish list that I posted on March 9th! At the beginning of April we finally connected through Twitter. A.J. made up for lost time and answered ALL of my questions. Sit back and enjoy -- he has an interesting story about his path to publication and his resulting e-pub success.

First, A.J, let's hear what your book is about. 

BUY IT NOW ON AMAZON

The Monster That Ate My Socks tells the story of a young boy whose socks keep disappearing. He discovers that a monster has been sneaking into his bedroom at night and eating his delicious dirty ones. His mother doesn’t believe that this is happening, and she’s fed up with buying new socks. So it’s up to our hero and his friend to solve the dilemma. 

Tell us briefly about your path to publication: Traditional or independent? Recently or further in the past?

About five years ago, I wrote and illustrated a book targeted towards adult readers. I did the typical query letter route with several publishers and agents but received rejection and one encouraging thanks-but-no-thanks.

When I found myself without work late last summer, I started investigating alternative publishing solutions. I went with Smashwords first and converted some of my other writing into different formats. This didn’t work out because what I created was half-formed. I wanted to find an outlet that married my talents into something of value; children’s books were a natural fit.

I started self-publishing through Amazon Kindle in November of last year with my first title Gordon's Gravy. Amazon provided the most upside for self-publishing as they have a network of links and recommendations that do a lot of the legwork of advertising for you.

At the time I had little understanding of audience expectations, so I just put out whatever idea I had and hoped that it caught someone’s eye. It took three months of putting out content before I struck a nerve with The Monster That At My Socks.  

What top factors do you believe put your e-book where it is now?

It’s hard to tell exactly what makes one book popular over another but here are a few consistencies:

1. A good cover. You always want your fonts clean, clear, and with good headroom. You should be able to read all the words even from the smallest thumbnail. My favorite cover is from Monsters A to Z. It manages to have the title and four characters clearly displayed and in harmony while still being clear in the thumbnail.

2. A good blurb. The most common reviews you get as an author are simply summaries, so I find it redundant to have one in your description of the title. Instead, I like to ask a question: “A raptor followed me home one day from school. I asked Mom if I could keep it and she said yes! But am I really ready to have a pet?” (My Pet Raptor)

3. A premise that is paid off. This is a concept that comes from screenwriting, but it holds true for all good stories. If your book is called Hug Bat, then at some point you have to have the bat hug someone. It’s a simple idea, but if the writer doesn’t fulfill their promise to the reader, they end up with an unsatisfactory story. Oddly enough, readers usually can’t identify this as a problem and just say “I didn’t like it.”

4. A satisfactory experience for the reader. I think of writing as making a mess and then cleaning it up. You’re not done until everything is back in its place. In The Monster That Ate Our Keys I tried to create a situation where everything turned upside down. I wanted things to be at stake (the father’s job in this instance) and a problem that seemed hard to solve (catching a slippery monster, or convincing it to regurgitate.) You want to create an experience for the reader. You want them asking questions and coming up with their own solutions. It’s the difference between showing and telling. People want to be a part of everything that they touch and if you throw enough questions out there, they’re bound to try and answer. All of those questions you throw out there, with some exceptions, need to be answered and there in lies the way that you satisfy your audience.

5. Creativity and surprise. I want all of my titles to inspire imagination and play so this is a particularly important point to me. However, I think writers get too hung up on originality. I’ve watched people drop ideas that sounded like something they hear, particularly when a new movie comes out. It’s not the idea that you come up with, but the execution and the detail that you put into it. Everyone has a unique voice, so we could all be telling the same exact story and there would still be variations. The death of writing is boredom, not mimicry. 

How are people finding out about your book? Tell us about your marketing and use of social media.

As of right now I only communicate publicly through twitter @AJCosmokids (I love hearing from readers!) I plan on doing more interactive things like games and contests, but up until this point I have relied entirely on word of mouth. 

What is your target audience, and how do you believe the e-format works for that audience and serves their needs?

I target emerging readers between the ages of four and eight. The stories are intended to transition children from being read to with picture books to reading themselves (with some illustrations to keep them interested.) I add in faux chapter breaks and natural stopping points to help the child along if they are struggling. You also can’t forget the parents either, so I also try to add inside jokes here and there for the adults to enjoy.

As for the eBook format itself, I consider it a separate medium from print (the same as film is a separate medium.) The experience of reading on an eReader is so different from a book, especially the 16x9 children’s books, that you have to engineer your work specifically for the format. The “blinking” of the digital page turning also creates a natural breathing to the reading, which is not as pronounced in paper format. 

I create all of my books specifically for the Kindle. The images, such as those found in Much Ado About Puffins are painted digitally in the dimensions that the Kindle supports natively (600x800pixels.) This gives the readers a better experience as the images are correctly proportioned for their devices. There’s no scaling or squashing, no cutoff, no breaks, and that makes for a better experience.

What were your initial thoughts about e-publishing?  Have those initial thoughts changed now that you’ve done it?

I think I have experienced every emotion you can in regards to e-publishing ;) But seriously, I think that the format has turned the table into a lazy Susan and the rules are constantly shifting. The gatekeepers used to be the agents, managers, and publishers who would use their years of experience dealing with the public to determine what the audience wanted. Now those gatekeepers are gone but the public remains.

Writers who want to make a career out of their creativity now have to contend with an unfiltered public. You have to wear every hat and that isn’t an exaggeration. It’s daunting, challenging, and exhilarating, but it is also tan demount to standing in the middle of a public square completely naked and asking strangers to critique your body.

I remember breaking into tears when one of the first reviews of “The Hope Flower” was posted. I had used a word that the reader didn’t like and got completely lambasted for it. That the word was bad had never crossed my mind, but here was the consequences staring right back at me. Had I gone with a publisher, that word, and thus the comment, would have never gotten out. 

As you got into e-publishing, have you discovered unexpected things? Has anything happened that you wouldn’t have predicted?

“The Monster That Ate My Socks” breaking into the Amazon top 500 last Christmas came as a complete shock. I was thrilled and terrified, especially when fans started asking for a sequel. It’s hard enough creating something that people like in the first place, but replicating it is a whole new challenge. 

The connectivity, the matrix, of the ePublishing universe is also intriguing and somewhat alarming. Everyone knows everything almost instantly and I’ve watched the community react as a whole when the publishers change the rules. It’s incredible to watch. This whole format is still evolving as we speak (I have had to adapt in just the past few weeks to a new norm) and who knows what it will look like a year from now.

I think in the future we will see the winners of the digital publishing boom create gatekeepers that mimic the gatekeepers of old and the new story for writers will be the time Amazon accepted their query for their new novel. 

Is your book available in print format? Which came first and why?

None of my material is available in print at this time. I am considering creating physical collections or special additions of some of my books, but I want them to be special and created specifically for the print medium (much of the artwork will need to be redone.) I also really like the idea of collectable books. 

Do you think e-publishing will eventually take over print publishing? Why or why not? How do you see the world of e-publishing for children within the next 5 years?

I think you could make the argument that this has already happened. From my perspective, however, the different mediums are filling different niches. The eBook format seems better suited to short form, serial, and genre types of writing such as romance, crime, young adult, and children’s books. These are “bite-size” stories that are easy to download, read, and put back down. I would even go so far as to say the progress bar on eBook readers act as positive reinforcement for finishing short material, and it also makes long material that much more daunting. 

Conversely, print format is increasingly becoming the realm of the memoir, the un-defined, the long-form, and the academic. I see the rise of “special” first editions as a reinforcement that these materials are to be cherished, respected, and collected.

None of what I just said is meant to be a critique of the quality of the writing on any of the mediums, they are of course wildly varied across all types, just an observation as to what the mediums seem to be gravitating towards.

As for children’s books, I think that we are in the nascent stages of what will become an animated and interactive medium. When I see children out with their parents and they have electronic devices they are always playing a videogame. Understandably, children want to play games while their parents want them to read. So I see eBooks for children transitioning into a hybrid interactive reading game.

Printed books will always have a place at bedtime because they are hand-me-downs. Those books accumulate memories and are increasingly cherished the more they are read. 

Do you believe the e-format helps or hurts you as an author? How?

I see this question as a reference to the disdain that some people exhibit towards self-publishers. I don’t share that sentiment. Creativity is the same regardless of what medium you pursue and quality is rewarded in every form. 

Increasingly, the publishers who are just as adverse to risk taking as the rest of us, are asking for sales numbers of self-published authors as a litmus test to their marketability. True, some publishers still scoff at indies, but the money is hard to ignore.

I think eBooks have helped me as an author because I really could not have created what I have any other way. In the past year I have put out Thirty-Two unique books. That’s about a book every one and a half weeks.

Had I traditionally published, I would have been allowed to create at most four titles. True, the quality would have been better as the illustrations would have taken longer, but I already try to give my work what I think suits the story. I am a one-man cottage industry and this absolutely was not possible under the traditional publishing model, even by other writer/illustrators.

Admittedly, I have had failures. However, in those failures I have been able to get invaluable insight into what my audience wants. For me a failed title is simply a week or two worth of work gone, for a publisher that would mean a disaster of at least six months lost. 

Do you believe the e-format helps or hurts your readers, specifically children and/or young adults? How?

Reading can entertain, enlighten, enrage, and enamor, but it can never hurt a person. Regardless of format, the activity of engaging the imagination through the brain makes us more aware of the world around us and the potential that it holds. I would even go so far as to say that reading makes us more intelligent, capable human beings (why do all those smart people read so much?)

Imagination, as Einstein said, “is more important than knowledge,” because we have to create the space, the potential, before we can discover something new. Imagination is the groundbreaker of the mind. Without it we become dull and our minds atrophy.

My goal as a children’s book author is to spark that imaginative drive. I want children to live in a world where something fantastic could potentially exist around every corner; where there is a whole galaxy of interesting things just teeming to be explored.

What advantages of e-publishing do you think are most relevant to the children’s literature market?

Children’s attention spans are constantly accosted by a host of stimuli (not to mention stimulus aimed at us adults.) Electronic devices are increasingly handed to children at younger ages (See article  "Should Your 2-Year-Old Be Using an iPad?") and those children are taking to them like ducks in water. The eBook format capitalizes on this trend while offering the rewarding experience that traditional books are renowned for.

Video games are increasingly replacing the roles that books used to occupy. Not that I have anything against video games, I play them myself, but it would be a great loss to lose the written word and the imaginative experiences that come with it. I hope that in some minor way I can inspire children to go from simple, humorous stories, to intricate ones capable of changing their lives forever.

We have in front of us the potential to create experiences yet unseen by the world and I count myself truly fortunate that I have been able to contribute to it.
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See all of A.J. Cosmo's books at his Amazon Author Page.

As usual, the Kids' EBook Bestseller List has been updated to show you all the bestselling ebooks for children and YA as of Saturday morning. Have a look -- you might find a new favorite!