Todd Kessler, best known as the co-creator and showrunner of the famous Nickelodeon show Blue’s Clues, had a story he wanted to tell in a book format, but it didn’t fit most publishers’ molds due to its length. So he turned to friends David Hemphill and Jessica Salans, who loved the story so much that despite having no experience in publishing (their background is in theater) they launched Los Angeles-based Coralstone Press last June, so that they could release Kessler’s first book, The Good Dog. The press is now getting ready for its second book: Kessler’s follow-up title, The Good Dog and The Bad Cat (Sept.).
Hemphill and Salans saw something unusual in Kessler’s book, that inspired them to take publishing the book into their own hands. “He broke the standard industry format for how long a children’s picture book is,” Salans said of The Good Dog, which came in at 107 pages, a hefty distance from the standard range. She noted that typically picture books are between 32 and 40 pages. “You’re lucky if you see anything more than that. Under 500 words is absolutely the industry standard. So we’re definitely outside of the realm of what is the status quo right now,” Salans said, adding that The Good Dog “harkens back to Horton Hears a Who and other long classic children’s books. We are of the mind that stories that are more complex and richer need a little bit more time.”
The Good Dog, illustrated by Jennifer Gray Olson, was co-published with Greenleaf Book Group in Austin, Tex., and distributed by IPG through its Small Press United division. The book features a boy who finds a puppy on the side of the road, and his parents agree to let him keep the dog (which he names Tako) if the dog behaves. With the pound looming as the threat for breaking the rules, conflict arises when Tako has to save his owners. The book was endorsed by the American Humane Association; Coralstone Press collaborated with the group on an ad around themes of adoption, and has participated in its last two annual Hero Dogs Award shows, which recognize “heroes on both ends of the leash.”
While neither Salans nor Hemphill was familiar with the inner workings of the publishing industry, they drew upon their theater production backgrounds to help hone the story and get the word out. It didn’t hurt that Kessler comes with a reputation, thanks to Blue’s Clues. “The advantage we have is Todd’s pedigree,” said Hemphill. “He has a history of success in children’s content.”
According to Hemphill, both Barnes & Noble and Canada’s Indigo Books have purchased the book, and he’s seeing support from many independent bookstores and libraries. However, the company is still at a disadvantage, being a brand new press in a saturated market, and with a list that so far consists of only one book. “It’s definitely an uphill battle all the time,” said Hemphill. “With The Good Dog it was a huge learning curve.”
They hope to use the lessons they learned from publishing The Good Dog, such as the industry timeline needed for reviewers, booksellers, and sales reps. “Basically, we learned we can go rogue on the creative spectrum but we must strictly adhere to the timetable the industry lives on in order to gain any traction,” Salans said.
Mostly, though, they view their naiveté about the industry as an advantage. “We’re coming at publishing from a different perspective,” said Hemphill. “We are looking at the creative side first. We’re also very lucky that the bottom line isn’t our bottom line necessarily. Because we’re a startup we’re not hindered by having to create a windfall of sales to justify our existence. That being said, we both have a lot of experience as producers, so the business side of things is also not out of the realm of our experience. It’s more the inner workings of the publishing industry we’re learning about.”
The pair is exclusively focused on longform narrative “storybooks” and has a call for submissions in their search for new titles as they continue to grow and to fill what Salans calls a “much-needed niche” in the picture book market. “We are trying to lean into what makes Coralstone Press different—our philosophy of longer-form narrative picture books,” said Hemphill.