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Spotlight: MaryAnn Kohl, IBPA Board Member

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February 2014

by Linda Carlson

Closeup: MaryAnn Kohl

Outgoing and enthusiastic, board member MaryAnn Kohl has spent almost 30 years in publishing, and she’s still excited about it. And, despite nearing traditional retirement age, she’s adding services to her Bright Ring Publishing company and pursuing another writing genre.

MaryAnn Kohl working with her kids. 

Because Kohl lives in Bellingham, WA, about 90 miles north of Seattle, she is among the IBPA members I know personally, someone it’s a delight to see at industry functions. In part that’s because Bright Ring demonstrates what so many experienced independent publishers advocate: Find a niche and focus on it.

Kohl started out as a teacher, so she knew children’s art well when she issued her first book in 1985. Scribble Art sold out its first press run within months, and similar titles soon followed. In 1994, Gryphon House published its first Kohl book, and for decades afterward, Kohl wrote a book a year, alternating between publication by Bright Ring and Gryphon House. Today, with national distribution handled by Legato, she has more than 2 million copies of her titles in print. Thousands of libraries—from Kohl’s hometown to Australia, South Africa, Singapore, Greece, Germany, and the Netherlands—have her books.

“I attribute my success to providing my readers with what they are used to and desire. They know what to expect, and I provide it,” she explains. “All my books are formatted the same way; all of them address art for children, and all of them provide open-ended activities.”

The result is something all publishers dream of: “My readers are loyal and buy whatever new book comes out.”

Kohl has also very quietly, very modestly, and very effectively done something on her own that high-priced consultants continue to expound on: become a brand.

“You’ve heard ‘Keep it simple’? That’s my approach,” the publisher says. “Certainly I’d like to write and publish other kinds of books, but focusing on art for children has built a successful brand for me.”

Kohl’s presentations for adults who work with children—teachers, librarians, and child-care professionals—contribute to the reputation and popularity of her books. She continues to do five full-day events annually, across the United States and sometimes in Canada, Mexico, and Europe. Webinars have reduced her travel somewhat, “but what people want from me,” she says, “is the hands-on experience, and in-person workshops are better for that.”

Because of the importance of her personal appearances, Kohl stresses the need for backup, and she encourages small publishers and self-publishers with similar needs to plan for emergencies. “Train someone to handle planning and setup of your workshops,” she advises. “For me, doing the actual presentation is fun and the least of the work.”

She also recommends that authors be able to suggest coauthors or colleagues to present for them if necessary, and that they outline the specifics of their workshops in advance so that others can give them if they can’t.

Besides adding Webinars to her list of products, Kohl has made other marketing changes using the Internet. “I have become extremely active in the blogs that are inspired by and honor children’s art,” she reports, noting that her marketing through these is “friendly, solid, and profitable” (see “All Aboard the Blog Tour, or How to Promote a New Title with an Interactive Launch,” in the October 2013 Independent). And she sends an email newsletter each month that’s packed with art activity ideas.

“My list keeps growing,” she says. Today it includes e-books. Eight of Bright Ring’s titles are now sold in digital form directly from the company Website. In addition, all are available for the Kindle.

And speaking of new, Kohl is now serving as a literary agent for writers with nonfiction manuscripts for the early childhood market. “It’s exciting to place an author with a publisher and see everyone happy,” she reports. “I’m enjoying this far more than I ever realized I would.”

Oh, that isn’t all: Kohl is writing fiction, too. “I’m writing short stories about childhood in the 1950s, and enjoying it tremendously!”

Translations with Special Funding

Russian Life Books has issued English-language editions of two titles originally published in Russian. The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas by Dmitry Chen is the first book in a historical thriller trilogy that takes place in 749 C.E. in what is now Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. (“Can you say topical?” quipped publisher Paul Richardson when he wrote to me about it.) It was first published by Publishing House of Olga Morozova in 2007.

“Given the historical, cultural, and linguistic remoteness of the eighth century and the language, it was a huge translation challenge,” says Richardson. “But what is even more interesting is that all of the money for the author advance and translation, a total of $15,000, was raised through a Kickstarter campaign.”

Although he says he knows of few other publishers using Kickstarter to raise funds for translation, Richardson recommends at least considering crowdfunding. In addition to a copy of the book, some Kickstarter subscribers received a mix tape of music that the author found inspiring when writing the novel. The campaign is outlined at kickstarter.com/projects/russianlife/the-silk-road-trilogy.

Russian Life Books’ second new title is Moscow and Muscovites, by Vladimir Gilyarovsky. “Originally published in 1926, this book repeatedly ranks among Russian’s most known and most beloved works, yet it has never before been translated into any language other than German, and as a result is little known outside Russia,” Richardson reports, adding. “And that is a shame.”

“Gilyarovsky was Russia’s first modern journalist,” Richardson continues. “His book captures what life was like in the capital from the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, in a style that is somewhere between the Huffington Post and Chekhov. It is without equal as a looking glass into everyday life in Moscow prior to the Bolshevik Thermidor.”

Now in the public domain, Moscow and Muscovites was translated with the financial assistance of the Moscow-based Translation Institute.

App Intelligence

Publishing an app as a tie-in to a book? Mona Parsa at Twin Peacocks Publishing says to not count on publicity from the blogs and Websites that review apps. Chances are, you’re too small a fish in the big ponds of popular app review sites, she explains. “Become the big fish in your own pond—that pond being your niche outside the book market.”

Parsa’s advice is based on the results of the referrals she’s received for the children’s app And So You Were Born (AndSoYouWereBorn.com), issued in 2012 and followed in January 2013 by a 28-page, $12 companion hardcover book.

“Much of our Website traffic and app coverage comes from sites run by parent organizations, parenting magazines, and faith-based and interfaith groups,” says the publisher/author, who has recorded nearly 90 online sources of referrals to andsoyouwereborn.com. “Our fourth-highest source is momswithapps.com, just after our own Website, Google.com, and Facebook and just before Facebook mobile. Digitalbookworld.com has been our seventh highest, and that is because I commented on a relevant article pertaining to books intertwined with technology. Our eighth- and tenth-highest sources of referrals are affiliates of the parenting site alldonemonkey.com.”

This app, priced at $1.99 for the iPhone/iPod version and $2.99 for the iPad version, offers both personalization and interactivity. “The app version offers the ability to input the child’s name and other personal details within the book, video recording, narration, games, and activities,” Parsa explains, and it has three parts: book, games, and coloring. “The book section has the same 28 pages as the print book, and in the app, they are studded with interactive elements that a child can activate by touch.”

Short Takes

● The Wall Street Journal’s Holiday Gift Guide ran an extensive review of The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton by Diane Atkinson from Chicago Review Press. And another CRP author, Alison Stewart, who wrote First Class, was recently interviewed on MSNBC’s Politics Nation with Al Sharpton.

● The WSJ Holiday Gift Guide also reviewed a Sourcebooks historical novel, The Final Sacrament, by James Forrester.

● Both publishers were also covered recently in Publishers Weekly. A starred review of the Chicago Review Press title Redefining Girly: How 

Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween by Melissa Atkins Wardy called it “eye-opening” and “a must-read.” And PW quoted Sourcebooks editorial manager Deb Werksman about the success of the publisher’s military-themed romances in its story “In Love and War: Military Characters Spice Up Romance Novels.”

● CCB Publishing reports foreign rights sales of two recently published titles. Errekappa Edizioni of Carpi, Italy, will issue Somebody Should Have Told Us! Simple Truths for Living Well by Jack Pransky, which CCB published in early 2011 in both print and e-book editions. The same firm will also publish Pransky’s Parenting from the Heart: A Guide to the Essence of Parenting from the Inside-Out, which CCB issued in August 2012 in print and digital format.

● Analogue Media’s travel guides were featured in the New York Times Travel Holiday Gift Guide, which said, “Can a guidebook be artisanal? The almost pocket-size Analogue Guides are about as close as they come.”

Linda Carlson writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she and MaryAnn Kohl have both been active in Book Publishers Northwest, an IBPA affiliate.


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