There is proper etiquette on approaching a bookseller with a request to stock a self-published title. John Churchman was sure he had violated it when, in early October, he dropped in unannounced at his local bookstore, the Flying Pig in Shelburne, Vt., with copies of the picture book he had recently published with his wife, Jennifer.
“I’m sure they were thinking, ‘How fast can we get this guy to leave?’ ” Churchman admits. But as he showed the book to store co-owner Elizabeth Bluemle, an eavesdropping customer said she’d buy a copy. Bluemle pulled over another store browser to take a look. That customer bought a copy, too. Bluemle was sold: she told Churchman she’d take another eight for her shelves.
Little did Churchman, a photographer who runs a “picture farm” (more on that later), know just how serendipitous a sale he’d made. Bluemle was so impressed with The SheepOver that she told the Churchmans she’d like to write a blog post about it. “We thought, ‘That is so nice. Of course,’ ” said Jennifer Churchman. “We thought she meant she was going to write about it in the newsletter she writes for the store.”
Instead, Bluemle, a contributor to PW’s ShelfTalker blog, wrote a post about what set the Churchmans’ book apart from many other self-published titles: the beautifully crafted photo-illustrations, the textured backgrounds, the extremely expressive animals, the heartwarming story of one animal coming to the rescue of another.
Bluemle’s blog post, published on October 2, almost instantly made the Churchmans a highly sought-after creative team. Multiple agents contacted them, wondering if they had considered shopping their book to a mainstream publisher. The first to reach them, however, was Brenda Bowen of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates.
“I read Elizabeth’s blog and thought, ‘I gotta call them,’ and before I even got around to figuring out how to get in touch with them I got a call from Heide Lange, the president of our agency, who said, ‘Have you seen this?’ ” said Bowen, referring to Bluemle’s rave. “So I friended [the Churchmans] on Facebook and sent a message saying, ‘I’d love to talk.’ They got back to me pretty quickly but they didn’t know what article I was talking about.”
The Churchmans didn’t know who Bowen was either, but they had friends who did. They called Bluemle and other booksellers for advice. John knew a photographer who had published a book with Bowen years earlier. “Consistently, what we heard was that Brenda Bowen was a super-nice superstar in the industry,” Jennifer said. “What people were really surprised about was that she had called us.” The Churchmans signed with Bowen without talking to anybody else.
Bowen had to wait a week before sending out The SheepOver because so many publishers were away at the Frankfurt Book Fair. That gave her time to prepare “an unusual, eye-catching submission”: baskets that contained a copy of the Churchmans’ book, and other Vermont goodies including maple candy, maple syrup, stuffed wooly sheep, and yarn from the Churchmans’ flock. Within a day, Bowen had multiple pre-empt offers, which she declined. She held a five-house auction the following week, won by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, which secured world English rights in a three-book deal for a high six-figure advance.
“I was won over even before I saw the basket,” said Megan Tingley, executive v-p and publisher of LBYR. “The cover, the title, the photographs – the animals have so much texture, they look like they might leap off the page. And every time I look at the cover, I just want to kiss that sheep.”
That sheep is Sweet Pea, an orphaned lamb who was bottle-fed by the Churchmans after her birth in March 2014. The story they tell about her in The SheepOver is based on a real episode, about a night she developed a fever after the animals had been shut in the barn for the night. The Churchmans’ border collie, Laddie, signaled to John that something was wrong. John brought Sweet Pea to the house and called the veterinarian.
“She had seemed slightly lame to me that day but sheep will try to mask an injury for a while,” John said. “If Laddie hadn’t alerted us that something wasn’t right... sheep go down very quickly. The vet said he had saved Sweet Pea’s life.”
After Sweet Pea got better, the Churchmans celebrated with a “sheepover,” a party which included all the sheep’s animal friends. And a disco ball. (Really.)
The idea for the book was fueled by Facebook, where John posts photos he takes daily of the farm’s more than 100 animals: 18 sheep, a mini-horse, four dogs, three geese, 20 ducks, six turkeys, two cats, and more than 50 chickens. Their Facebook audience was heavily invested in Sweet Pea’s recovery, and in making sure that Laddie got the attention she deserved for her role in the rescue. The Churchmans initiated a Kickstarter campaign that raised enough capital for a small print run of a hardcover book that told Sweet Pea and Laddie’s story.
Though The SheepOver is the Churchmans’s first published book, they both have expertise that helped their debut effort stand out. John is a fine-art photographer with many years’ experience working with design. Jennifer is a copywriter and editor who has worked in brand development for a wide variety of clients. “Before we did this, our commercial work was for clients who wanted to tell brand stories,” Jennifer said. “I would write the copy – food is our specialty – and John would produce the photographs.” Most of the farm’s chickens came from a client – Murray McMurray Hatchery – who gave the Churchmans three to four chicks from the many poultry varieties they breed and asked them to raise the chicks to adult birds, taking photographs along the way.
“They are not just sheep farmers who had this thrust on them,” said Bowen, “They are quite savvy about how to run a business and how to build a brand. Before this happened [Bluemle’s blog post], they were pretty close to starting their own small press to produce future books.”
Little, Brown ordered an immediate reprint of the Churchmans’ original book, which will be available as a jacketed hardcover in early December and as an ebook in January 2016. “There was some thought of waiting until spring but they have seeded the market, and made themselves known with indie booksellers in their area and my gut was saying, ‘People love this book right now,’ ” Tingley said. “It’s the kind of book you read and you immediately want to get another one to give to someone. So we signed a contract Thursday, John uploaded the files Friday, and we started printing Monday.” (The book is currently only available via the Churchmans' website and the few bookstores, like the Flying Pig, that have it in stock.)
A second edition, with additional back matter that will give readers more information about the workings of the Churchmans’ farm and about Sweet Pea and her friends, will be available by spring. Subsequent books – The Brave and Mighty Little Finn, about another orphaned lamb, and Laddie and Maisie Grace, about the Churchmans’ border collies, will release in 2017 and 2018.
“They have so many stories going on, so many ideas, and the characters are all in their backyard; I think it will go well beyond two books,” Tingley said. “A lot of the magic here is because of John’s relationship with these animals. He’s not a photographer, he’s Farmer John. He’s the guy who feeds them and cares for them and they trust him. There’s an intimacy there and that’s why his photographs are special.”
For her part, Bluemle says she has sold “cases” of The SheepOver since those first eight copies, and is thrilled to have been godmother to what looks like it will be a made-in-Vermont series. “Any farmer could write a cute story about a sheep,” she said, “but there’s an artistry with which this one was done that is really special.”
Bowen thinks Sweet Pea and Friends will even transcend borders; while Bowen was preparing her baskets, her colleagues were showing the book around Frankfurt. She expects sales into other territories. “The moral of this story,” Bowen said, “is to read your e-mails from PW as soon as they hit your box.”
The SheepOver (Book 1 in the Sweet Pea & Friends collection) by John and Jennifer Churchman. LBYR, $17.99 ISBN 978-0-316-27356-5 Available early Dec.