When Innosanto Nagara set out to create a board book to teach his son about progressive values, he thought he'd print one book, and that would be the end of it. But the more he talked to his friends and family, the more he became convinced that there might be a wider audience for his idea. After a successful crowdfunding campaign and a sold-out first printing, followed by an offer from a traditional publisher, A Is for Activist is enjoying the kind of success indie authors dream about.
"My son and all the kids in my community inspired me to write the book," says Nagara, an Oakland-based graphic designer who was born in Indonesia but has lived in California since 1988. "I live in a wonderful communal living situation, and [my son] is the eighth child born into our household, so I read a lot of board books. The reality is, there are a ton of toddler books out there, and while many are great—it’s amazing how many really aren't."
The Medium Is What Matters
Nagara began considering what it might be like to create his own board book—one that reflected the values of his own socially progressive community. He felt he understood the elements it took to create a successful read that was engaging to both children and adults—combining thoughtful rhyming and alliteration along with rich images that encouraged exploration. The end result is what he calls an “A-B-C book for the 99%.” The letter C stands for co-ops, cooperating cultures, and cats, for example, while the letter E stands for equal rights and environmental justice. "I was writing it for my family and families who shared our values, not just trying to reach a least-common-denominator audience," Nagara explains.
Nagara's first step was to distribute mockups of the potential text and illustrations, along with a feedback form, to friends and family members who had children in the target zero-to-three age range. He also had various drafts reviewed by teachers and early childhood education specialists. Incorporating feedback from this "field-testing" at each stage enabled him to ensure the book would appeal to his core audience. "I went through many revisions, and that has really paid off," he says of the process.
The final version that took all the feedback into account includes bright, bold illustrations featuring many children of color, and socially progressive messages from A to Z. Nagara saw the book as one that would help fill a gap in the current market. “The statistics on racial diversity alone in children’s books are appalling, not to mention gender, LGBTQ families, and progressive values in general,” he says.
Next came the challenge of how to affordably print and distribute a full-color board book. With a background in printing as well as in graphic design, Nagara realized the economics of publishing his own board book would be difficult. He investigated some on-demand publishers and novelty photo book services but the cost per book was prohibitive—about $60. Nagara says he did use these services for his field-tested prototypes, but to print in quantity they weren't a viable option. Many self-publishers like CreateSpace don't yet offer a board-book format. He then got a few quotes from printers and decided to take a chance by printing the book on his own. "For the math to make sense, I had to raise funds to print them in quantity," says Naraga.
C Is for Crowdfunding
Nagara ultimately decided to crowdfund the printing costs and he chose Kickstarter to do it. He created his campaign page and added video of himself reading from the book to his son, as well as text and images from the project. He appealed to potential donors by explaining that "even a two year old can appreciate a word like 'camaraderie'... as long as there's also a cat in the picture." As an incentive, backers pledging $25 or more received a copy of the finished book, while donors of over $100 received recognition on the back cover. In 30 days, 131 backers pledged $4,501—more than $1,500 over his goal of $3,000—to fully fund the campaign. After fees, the final amount he received was closer to $4,000, which he supplemented with micro loans from friends and family. With this, he was able to fund his first print run of 3,000 copies.
The final result of Nagara's efforts was a book that clearly resonated with readers. His first print run sold out within a few months. "What I hadn't really considered is that there would also be a secondary audience—aunts and uncles, grandparents, friends of people who have children, and even people who don’t have children in their lives who are excited about the book." Nagara did a survey of the readers who bought the first edition and while most of them were parents or primary care givers, he discovered many people were purchasing the book as a gift. "Sometimes it’s easy to feel like an embattled minority as we try to raise our children in a sea of corporate billboards. But as it turns out, lots of other people feel that way too."
He was fulfilling orders in his living room after work and dropping the books off at the post office every morning. "It was a second job," he says. He also faced the challenge of supplying independent bookstores with copies of the book, as his printing costs, in addition to the standard discount booksellers receive from publishers, made the arrangement unsustainable. "I love and want to support independent booksellers," he explains, "but given my costs, it was very difficult to sell it at a price that would make sense for both them and me." In addition to this, he realized that buyers and booksellers outside the U.S. were paying a premium in shipping. He was at a crossroads. "It was clear that if I wanted the book to become available to a broader audience, a real publisher and distributor that could take advantage of economies of scale to bring down the costs of printing, shipping, and marketing, was going to be necessary."
Because of this realization, he began querying traditional publishers that he thought might be a good fit. "Naively perhaps, I thought it would be an easy sell," he says. "I had sold out my first run within months, and I had quotes from bookstores saying that over the holidays it was selling as well as Harry Potter." He heard back from a small number of publishers although many of them lacked experience with publishing board books and expressed reservations about the printing costs. One publisher was interested in a softcover edition of the book; however, Nagara felt the board book format was essential and moved on. He finally found a like-minded publisher with Seven Stories Press, which shared his enthusiasm for both the book's message and the board-book format. "Seven Stories was no stranger to titles that break new ground, and they had a really solid international distribution network," Nagara notes.
Seven Stories released the book under its children's imprint Triangle Square in November 2013. Nagara says the book is now in its fourth printing, with a Spanish edition written and adapted by Grammy award-winning musician Martha Gonzalez slated for this fall. The book is now also available as an e-book.
While he acknowledges the book's progressive message won't be for everyone, he says that's OK. "I trust that among like-minded people, we don’t have to agree on everything, and we needn’t be afraid to discuss these differences with our children." For the book's fans, however, the message is clearly a welcome one—author and activist Naomi Klein called it "full of wit, beauty, and fun" while New Mexico State Representative Christine Trujillo offered the blurb “B is for BUY this book."
One of the most rewarding aspects of his publishing journey was the different individuals he has met along the way. “I’ve discovered a whole world of like-minded people who are working tirelessly to broaden the definition of children’s books,” he says.
As for the publishing process, Nagara maintains it is necessarily a collaborative effort. “The reality is that getting that vision from your head and into the hands of your audience is a group process,” he says. He advises authors to be clear about their core vision and to stick to it when working with others, but believes this ultimately will lead to a better book. Nagara was assisted by his partners at the cooperative design studio where he works to develop the book's concept and create the illustrations, and relied on his professional and social networks to spread the word about his crowdfunding campaign with Kickstarter. He received loans from friends and family and also had help with website coding. "Even as you may feel you are doing everything yourself," Nagara says of self-publishing, "in fact we are relying on the kindness of strangers at every step of the way.”