Motivated by her young daughter’s desire to see picture books on her Kindle, Calee M. Lee, founder of Xist Publishing in Irvine, Calif., taught herself how to create digital children’s books that are available in all formats, including reflowable ePub for libraries.
“When I saw that the books I’d downloaded showed pictures that were tiny and didn’t line up with the text, I thought, ‘I can do better,’ ” said Lee, who had no previous publishing experience. She began by writing her own children’s book, The Queen and the Cats: A Story of Saint Helena, and hiring artist Turbo Qualls to illustrate it.
“I had to create a business, learn how to write a contract, and teach myself how to make an e-book,” Lee said with a laugh. After she spent the summer of 2011 doing just that, a publishing company was born. The Queen and the Cats was Xist’s first release, and Lee quickly grew the company to its current list of 180 original titles from 35 writers and illustrators.
Although primarily a digital press, Xist also offers more than three-quarters of its titles in print, through its print on demand partnership with Ingram’s Lightning Source. “Right now our focus is on schools and libraries,” said Lee, “and our institutional sales are up from last year. Consumer sales are increasing as well, primarily through word of mouth.” It helped, too, that the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators featured a story about Xist in its July/August SCBWI 2013 Bulletin. Following this, Lee began receiving editorial submissions.
Xist, whose motto is “books for the touchscreen generation,” is a joint venture with Lee’s husband, Jacob. They hire freelancers to do book layout and design, programming, and marketing. Calee Lee has now written 12 books for the press, and as the company has expanded and submissions accelerated, Xist publishes a variety of fiction and nonfiction writers and illustrators and has four editorial categories. The Discover Series is for babies and toddlers. “They’re like board books,” Lee said, “but because [print on demand] can’t produce that format this series is exclusively digital.” Titles in the series include Lee’s World Landmarks, U.S. Landmarks, Gems, and Cats (99¢ each). There are 20 titles in the Discover Reading series for early readers ($2.99), among them Nancy Streza’s Let’s Eat Dinner and Jacob Lee’s Funny Bunny. This fall, Xist will introduce a chapter book series written by multiple authors.
The press’s picture books round out the Xist line and comprise the bulk of its editorial output. Forthcoming titles include Secret Agent Josephine in Paris by Brenda Ponnay, What Is a Family? by Tamia Sheldon, and History’s Witches by Lisa Graves. “We acquire for digital,” said Lee, “but we’re also thinking print. Hopefully we’ll grow into acquiring more titles for print.” Lee is aware that a primarily digital platform makes it nearly impossible to sell to and develop relationships with indie bookstores. “We would consider bookstores an additional market, so for the immediate future our focus is on digital. I’m very cautious about print investments and until we find the right distributor to partner with, we will focus our energies elsewhere.” For the time being, Xist titles can be purchased through Amazon.
Lee says there is little competition in the digital children’s book market for Xist, especially in terms of number of titles and the POD option. Still, Lee is slowing down the company’s production rate for the moment and publishing fewer titles to concentrate on wider distribution for Xist’s books. “I’m learning everything through trial and error,” Lee said. “Our plan is to continue to grow and move into additional markets. We are excited to see what the future holds for kids and e-books, and we will be sure to be on the front lines.