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From Idea to Animal Planet: The Curious Critters Formula for Success

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Red Flat Bark Beetle. Young readers learn about parasites, noticing six mites riding on the back of this reclusive insect.

Blue Jay. Children can practice a variety of bird calls—like the “Kee-eeeee-arr Kee-eeeee-arr” call of a red-tailed hawk—as they sing along with this master imitator.

Goldfish. This playful goldfish, wishing for something other than “funny fish flakes,” gets herself in trouble with the crustacean on the previous page when she asks for some vegetables or maybe “some baby crayfish.”



Eastern Box Turtle. Writing the copy for this reptile, I worked with biologist Sue Siebert, who told me children love knowing that box turtles wallow in mud. 

Virginia Opossum. As a tip of the cap to T.S. Eliot, this “Old Possum” waxes poetic with a humble “Ode to O. Possum.”

Gray Treefrog. The signature image of the Curious Critters series, the meditative-looking amphibian featured on the book’s cover explains inside how its name belies its frequent green coloration.

Monarch Caterpillar. After explaining its transformation into a chrysalis and then adult, this monarch caterpillar concludes, “Change looks good!”

Cedar Waxwing. A good example of a “bad feather day,” this puffed-up songbird adorns the front jacket flap, sending a signal that learning about animals is fun.

From Idea to Animal Planet: The Curious Critters Formula for Success

by David FitzSimmons

How does a new indie book win a national book award, land on AnimalPlanet.com, and receive more than 100 TV, radio, print, and online media reviews within two months of its launch? The formula that worked for me is pretty simple:

• Listen to your audience.

• Build a top-level project team.

• Create for particular readers.

• Plan carefully and include partners.

• Promote! Promote! Promote!

Listening to Your Audience

In the fall of 2010, I debuted my Curious Critters photography series at the Telluride Photo Festival. The response to these eye-level animal portraits, photographed against white backgrounds, was electric. Visitors to my gallery exhibit insisted, one after another, that I produce a book, and many suggested a children’s book.

People were excited by the images, so I listened. I listened as they shared which images were their favorites, why they liked them, and what they thought my book should look like. Then I started writing the book, still listening as I shared drafts with various readers.

My test audiences ranged from family and friends to photographers, scientists, educators, and professional editors.

Building a Top-Level Team

Early on, I researched whether to pursue the traditional publishing route or to self-publish. To maintain creative control, bring the book to market faster, and maximize long-term profits, I decided to start my own company, founding Wild Iris Publishing in 2011.

Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual and Peter Bowerman’s Well-Fed Self-Publisher proved invaluable. Using resource listings in these books, I found an excellent book shepherd, Peter Beren, former publisher with Sierra Club books. Peter helped me hire a designer, editors, publicists, a print broker, and a distributor (see “My Publishing Dream Team” below for their names).

We committed early on to making our self-published book indistinguishable from books produced by the big New York houses. So, all the people I hired came with impressive records of publishing success, and overall, I consulted with more than 50 professionals in the fields of publishing, photography, education, and natural history.

At the same time, I joined various professional organizations, including IBPA, which helped me stay current and connected to other authors, artists, and indie publishers.

Creating for Particular Readers

Beginning with my market-tested photographs, we began work on producing our book. After researching national and state education standards, I wrote Curious Critters so that it met all National Research Council K–4 life science standards and the standards of the most populated states. Not only did this provide a solid foundation for the book’s teaching, it also meant that we could market to parents, educators, and librarians.

While we observed that Curious Critters was appealing to a broad audience—the pictures were making young and old alike ooh, aah, giggle, and gasp—our team targeted ages 4 to 8. This mainly affected the copy next to each animal and the back matter, which includes additional information about the subjects, a two-page, life-size silhouette guessing game, and a glossary.

From the more than 100 Curious Critters images I had at the time, we selected 21 common backyard animals from across North America. This geographic focus helped further define the book’s target audience. Moreover, using common critters synchronized the book’s conservation focus with current research.

Children learn environmental responsibility by experiencing nature locally.

Research shows that young people have a propensity for biophilia: but this love of nature needs to be encouraged through positive experiences with the natural world, especially with nature in your own back yard. Curious Critters lets children have fun staring at subjects eye-to-eye while reading playful but educational prose.

Planning and Including Partners

Careful planning and partnerships were key to making Curious Critters a reality. Since all the images in the book were produced with Sigma lenses, Dave Metz, Sigma marketing director and Sigma Pro director, said that company would support the project in exchange for placement of the Sigma logo on the second page. This helped fund the project while also creating shared interest in book promotion. (I should tell you, too, that it was Dave Metz’s idea to create the white background animal series.)

Using Poynter’s and Bowerman’s timetables, I laid out costs per month and analyzed my own cash-on-hand monthly income and borrowing potential. Then I carefully negotiated contracts, finding workable fees partly through demonstrating the long-term potential of our unique product. I leveraged our growing dream team to attract even more great partners, again at reasonable fees. In other words, people were eager to join an exciting project.

Promote! Promote! Promote!

One year after the Telluride Photo Festival, Curious Critters, a 32-page nonfiction children’s book, was set to launch. With the assistance of the Sigma team, my two publicists spread the word and distributed copies of Curious Critters to media all over North America.

At the same time, I began submitting the picture book to contests, and, before its November 7, 2011, release, Curious Critters had won a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award. A month after its release, the book had been featured by Scientific American, Animal Planet, The Huffington Post, The Environmental News Network, The Learning Channel, and more than 75 other media outlets. And the reviews kept coming. I began appearing on TV and was interviewed on radio. And a whole host of online media, particularly mom blogs, widely acclaimed Curious Critters.

Print media coverage continues to roll out. School Library Journal gave Curious Critters a starred review in its January 2012 issue, and upcoming articles are scheduled in Audubon, ForeWordBookReviews, and Shutterbug, to mention a few. In addition, my appearances on radio and TV continue. In short, photography, publishing, educational, parenting, and environmental communities are all talking about Curious Critters. These are the fruits of a commitment to strong and continual book promotion.

What’s Next?

Currently, I am focusing on three things:

• continuing to promote the book

• lining up book events

• writing Curious Critters II

And these current efforts lie largely in the hands of three people: my distributor, my publicists, and me.

I am fortunate to be working with Beagle Bay, Inc., as my distributor, the company run by Jacqueline Simonds, who is both a veteran in the publishing world and a book shepherd. I chose Jacqueline not only because she can get Curious Critters to Ingram, B&T, and other wholesalers quickly and affordably, but also because she works one-on-one with me to increase sales. We discuss which trade shows to attend, where to place advertising dollars, and how to develop winning formulas for book events.

Book events are a long-term commitment because I’m hoping for evergreen status for Curious Critters. Avoiding humdrum book signings, we developed performances, where I read portions of the book while children act out parts with animal puppets. Children learn animal sounds—such as the R-r-r-u-u-m, R-r-r-u-u-m sound of an American bullfrog, or the chattering of a blue jay—throughout the reading. At the end I give away coloring pages and stickers.

For a recent trip to south Florida, I set up children’s book performances of Curious Critters at two Miami-area Books & Books. Publicist Paul Krupin and I worked together to send two email blasts to more than 1,000 Miami-area media. This resulted in an appearance on Miami NBC-TV. Meanwhile, Books & Books promoted through its array of channels. The result: more than 100 children and adults at the two events.

This translates not only to immediate sales but also to word of mouth. Marketing experts say a product must come before consumers seven times before they will purchase. Word of mouth, combined with copious book reviews, radio and TV appearances, and public programs, is helping assure that we reach this magic number for Curious Critters.

While I continue to explore new ways to share Curious Critters with others, I am beginning work on the second book, having noted in the Curious Critters introduction that it was the first in a series. One book on a shelf can sell itself, but two books on the shelf can help sell each other. That’s why bookstores love to stock books in series.

How will I approach producing this second picture book? Well, it’s pretty formulaic: I’ll listen, assemble a strong team, create content for particular readers, plan carefully and work with partners, and promote, promote, promote!

David FitzSimmons, publisher at Wild Iris Publishing, is a Sigma Pro photographer and writer as well as a professor at Ashland University. He photographs and writes for PopularPhotography, Professional Photographer, OutdoorPhotographer, Shutterbug, newspapers, and online publications. To learn more about Curious Critters or buy signed and dedicated copies, visit curious-critters.com.

My Publishing Dream Team

Peter Beren—literary agent, publishing consultant, and book shepherd, former publisher of Sierra Club Books

Lorna Garano—book publicist; speakers bureau director

Lisa Kirk—freelance editor

Paul Krupin—Custom Targeted PR

Donna Linden—editorial/graphics production manager at the Exploratorium; formerly with Red Wheel Weiser, Wadsworth, Chronicle Books, and Wired Books

Roger Ma—print broker, Globalink

Dave Metz—Sigma Corporation of America

Christine Moossmann—marketing director, Sigma Corporation of America

Iain Morris—art director, Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates; formerly with LucasFilm Licensing, Palace Press International, and Dorling Kindersley

Amy Novesky—independent editor; former editor, Chronicle Books; award-winning author

Jacqueline Simonds—distributor, consultant, author

Marci Stone—Matter Communications

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