In this ongoing series of interviews, former SCBWI Israel Illustrator Coordinator Liora Grossman shares fascinating stories of SCBWI Israel members and their writing journeys. Liora has chosen each member to shed light on a different aspect of children’s writing and illustrating here in Israel and around the world.
Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Adi Remba Erez. I’m an author and an independent publisher. I have recently published a children’s book called The Letter Fairies, published in both English and Hebrew, that I’ve developed further into a line of merchandise. I’m currently acting as media and social network coordinator for SCBWI Israel. I’m also a media consultant for OurBoox, a digital platform which allows authors and illustrators to display their work, and receive contributions from worldwide readers.
I grew up in Rishon Lezion, and have been journaling and writing short stories since childhood. I always dreamed of becoming a writer and a movie director. I used to write screenplays for imaginary video clips of artists I liked and even considered sending them for their review (not that I ever did!).
I have a B.A. in psychology and communications and an M.A. in children and youth studies, both from Tel Aviv University. I took several courses at a screenwriting school in Tel Aviv, and won an award from the American-Israeli Cultural Foundation for best short screenplay for children. I also took a creative writing course with Israeli author, and a psycho-drama class.
For me, writing has always been a kind of a hobby I enjoyed in my spare time. I never considered trying to write professionally. I was working as a customer success manager in a placement company for the last couple of years, and I was happy doing that. Life however, tends to take its own twists and turns.
How did you get the idea to write The Letter Fairies? Can you tell us about the book and let us in on the process of putting it together?
When I was on maternity leave with my son, I decided to teach my older daughter the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. I came up with short rhymes about the ways the letters look and sound. I guess reading to her aloud made me more aware of rhythm and music in children’s books. For example, books by Dr. Seuss or by Julia Donaldson. Then I came up with the idea of writing a story about the Letter Fairies. I played with this idea for a long time, but the actual writing only took a few days. I already had it mapped out in my mind. The final version, as seen in the book, is relatively close to the original one.
The illustrations in the book have played a huge part in its success. How did you come to choose your illustrator, Jenny Meilihove? What was her contribution to the end product?
I came across Jenny Meilihove’s art a few years before writing the book. When I was pregnant with my older child, I was looking around for art to hang in her room. I came across Jenny’s art in an online gallery. I thought her style was unique, with a dreamlike quality. I decided to meet up with her so I could choose several drawings in person.
After The Letter Fairies was written, I contemplated sending the finished manuscript to several local publishing houses.
Before doing that, and since I felt Jenny’s style would be a great fit for the story, I contacted her. She liked the manuscript I sent her. I then asked her for permission to submit some of her former work, to help further demonstrate the look I had in mind for this project. A few publishing houses got back to me, and I’m sure her illustrations were partly the reason for that.
During the process of producing the book, Jenny and I worked hand in hand to achieve the visual impact I was aiming for. After deciding together on the format of the book, and its color scheme, we had a weekly “clash of ideas.” I would tell her how I envisioned each two-page spread, and she would reciprocate with sketches and ideas of her own.
I think Jenny’s illustrations are equally responsible for the success of “The Letter Fairies”. I will always credit her as my partner in its making. I also must say that I consider our graphic designer, Nastya Faybish, to be the third “parent” of the book, bringing together my words and Jenny’s art to create a complete work.
Illustrations by Jenny Meilihove
Tell us a little about the challenges you encountered in the publishing process.
I sent the manuscript with a few of Jenny’s illustrations to nearly 20 Israeli publishing houses. Some of them never got back to me, others sent negative responses. A few publishing houses did get back to me, and encouraged me to try to have the book published. A well-known editor wrote back that he liked the rhymes, but that they don’t publish picture books. Another one took the time to actually meet with me. Instead of offering me a deal, though, she went on and on about the struggles of being a publisher. “Having met you,” she added at the end of that meeting, “I think you are absolutely capable of publishing it on your own.” I was encouraged by that to be brave enough to try.
The main challenges I faced during the process of self publishing were:
Financing. I bounced back and forth the idea of crowdfunding via Kickstarter or a local Israeli crowdfunding platform like headstart or Mimoona platform. I came to the conclusion that people would rather spend their money on finished products. I didn’t think I might raise enough to publish the book. After deliberating with my family, we decided we would fund it with our savings.
Inexperience. I had never published a book before. Everything about the printing and marketing process was new to me. After spending many nights on research I decided to print a limited edition of 150 books, and hopefully learn from there more about what works best.
I want to emphasize that since I was treating this book as a product, I had to come up with a business plan. It was clear from the get-go that actually making a profit would take some time. I started out printing only 150 copies. That’s not very cost-effective in terms of print fees, but I needed to make sure that the book was marketable. So it was a better option, in my opinion, than printing 2000 copies, and getting stuck with them.
During that process, there were expenses I had considered in advance (such as graphic design, illustration, printing costs, etc.). Other expenses came as a complete surprise–like the considerable price of registered mail within Israel. Even the website I’ve built for the project (which is a significant source of marketing and publicity) has a monthly cost that I hadn’t taken into consideration. I’m constantly tracking expenses versus revenues, just like anyone who starts a new business would do. I fully expect to recover my initial costs within a year (18 months from publishing).
At some point, you started thinking outside the box of traditional publishing. You broadened your perceptions, expanding this project into more than just a picture book. You created a whole marketing program, maximizing the possibilities of branding and marketing. Can you tell us a little more about this transformation?
Being a media consultant, I don’t shy away from new digital platforms. While we were working on the book, I created Facebook and Instagram accounts to promote the project. I also designed a website just for the book. I started networking to create a community to follow through with this initiative. That way, when the book was done, there were already people waiting for it. I invented a term to help me advance the marketing plan: “WWDD.” It stands for “What Would Disney Do?” I had plenty of fun looking up all kinds of merchandise I could sell online with the book. I printed pillows, children’s clothing, bags, placemats, posters, etc. That contributed a lot to the promotion of the book. I think that the novelty in my concept was that I treated this new, unfamiliar book like it was already a hit, and a household name. This out-of-the-box approach really worked.
Illustrations by Jenny Meilihove
What else is in stored for The Letter Fairies?
I’d love to see the book in every home of every first-grader in Israel… and I’m also hoping the book can be published in different languages in other countries. I’m currently working on a musical based on the book and a proposal for a TV show. I’m also thinking about writing other books (not necessarily about fairies). We just have to wait and see.
Based on your experience, what would be your advice for authors and illustrators in terms of publicity and marketing?
Don’t be shy! Even if your book is published by a traditional publishing house, you’re still responsible for promoting it! Be creative, get acquainted with the power and possibilities of social media, and leverage them to your advantage. Relying solely on the traditional marketing process, especially with established publishers with many other books to promote, isn’t enough. Promoting through social media is essential. Your publisher may try other venues, but you need to be there.
Has SCBWI membership helped you professionally, in your opinion?
Being a member of SCBWI and participating in SCBWI activities has definitely empowered me. It gave me the courage to write an English version and send it to publishing houses outside of Israel. Being around so many accomplished authors and illustrators makes me realize we can keep learning from each other all the time. The fact that through volunteering at SCBWI, I got to meet Lin Oliver—one of the organization’s founders—and Chris Barash of PJ Library [an organization which distributes 200,000+ books monthly about Judaism and Israel to families in North America], is nothing less than amazing!