Interview – Making the Leap: Author/Artist David Kirk Creates His Own Publishing Company
Imagine, if you will for a moment, that you were to create your own book publishing company. Would that be a nightmare for you, or a dream? For David Kirk, it’s neither: It’s a reality. And if his name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the man behind the Miss Spider book/TV series, as well as a brother to fellow children’s book creator, Daniel Kirk.
To be honest with you, I’ve always fantasized about starting a publishing company. The next best thing to that? Talking to someone who already has. I had a chance to shoot Mr. Kirk some of my questions about the process and the surprises along the way.
Betsy Bird: I wonder if, before we begin, you could give me a little background to your work in the realm of children’s literature. How would you, prior to this project, have labeled yourself in the industry?
David Kirk: I came to children’s books through an odd route. First I was an artist, but then, for over fifteen years, I was a toymaker. I got my chance in children’s books when a couple of publishers noticed the illustrations I made on the boxes for my toys. I’d also been writing silly verses for greeting cards I was designing for a company called Meri Meri. Looking back, all that was perfect preparation for a picture book career.
As for a label in the industry, so far, nearly everyone knows me as the Miss Spider guy. That’s OK. I’m proud of Miss Spider. The series was dear to me. I worked on it for over twenty years – seven painted books, a TV show, dozens more books with computer-generated art based on the TV show, hundreds of products of all sorts for Target and other companies based on my Miss Spider/Sunny Patch characters. Those products were a lot of fun, but books are my first love.
BB: So I cannot speak for other people in the children’s book industry, but to a certain extent I feel that you are living out a fantasy that many of us have had: Starting your own publishing company. Tell me a little bit about where the idea to do this came from, and where you got the guts to take the leap.
DK: Guts – I’m not so sure that’s what I’ve got. What I do have is a desire to create what I think is valuable. I’ve never been any good at figuring out and providing what publishers want. I’ve tried a few times and it has backfired.
When you’re a children’s book author the ideal is to make stories for your children or for a particular audience you can identify with. Sometimes you write them for the child you once were. Out in the real world, you may not always get to do that, so when you go to sell your work, you’re making a guess as to what an agent might be looking for. The agent is guessing what their publisher clients are looking for. The editors at those publishers are guessing what their audience might want in a couple of years (the length of time it takes to bring a book to market) and are also figuring what will fit into their list for that season. These are all smart people and every one of them is trying their best to make good books, but still, it’s a lot of guessing by a lot of folks and every one them guesses differently. I can’t add up the number of projects I’ve been passionate about that have been passed on and are still waiting for an opportunity to be made. Miss Spider’s Tea Party got rejected by thirty-five publishers before it found a home. What crazy kid wants a book about a spider? It’s a sensible question, but that one book sold a million copies and was the exact book I wanted to do. I think of that when I’m discouraged – it’s possible to make the book you believe in and have it succeed. There’s no guarantee, but since it happened once, I know it’s a possibility and a goal worth reaching for.
And that’s why I’m trying to be a publisher. I’d like to be the guesser-in-chief instead of relying on a chain of other guessers. I want to believe that if my book is of value to me, children and their care-givers will also see that value. If I’m very lucky, I hope to start guessing for other artists and writers too and bring some of their work to the market, but to start with, I’m using my own work for this publishing experiment.
BB: I’ve heard you mention that this was a project you’d wanted to do for many years and “it feels like now is the time.” What makes this moment in time the right one?
DK: I considered starting my own publishing when my old publishing partnership ended in 2009. I was researching my options when another opportunity turned up and I chickened out. I just wasn’t ready.
I turned 64 a couple of months ago, so like everyone who hits this age, I have the Beatles lyrics about pleasant retirement bouncing around my head every time I hear that number. That’s not what my 64 has been like. Instead, I’ve worked long days figuring out how to do a million business related things I’d rather not be bothered with, hoping that it will lead me to the place that I can do my best work, There are stories I’d like to tell – characters I’d like to create and pictures I need to paint. I still have this hope, which has often been beaten down but still keeps climbing off the ground and grabbing me by the ankles, that if I do the work that means the most to me, people will respond, the heavens will open and bestow me with success, or if not, at least I’ll get to feel good about the work I’ve done and maybe make enough money to finance my next book.
BB: Why did you name the company “Pipweasel Publishing”?
DK: Pipweasel is a kind gnome from The Adventures of Mr. Pipweasel, a book by my favorite children’s author, Ida Bohatta Morpurgo. My whole career started from another book of hers – The Gnome’s Almanac. I got it for a quarter at a local library sale. That one had a little verse for each month of the year featuring a seasonal animal or some event appropriate to the month. I loved the verses so much I started writing. This was sometime in the early eighties and I’d never written anything at that point.
BB: What did you expect would be a challenge? And what came entirely out of left field for you?
DK: I knew the business part would not be fun. I struggle through it, but it is not my favorite job. My forty years in toys and publishing prepared me a little, but there’s much to learn. Here’s a little list of projects I worked through to get to this point – setting up an LLC, registering a trademark, getting copyrights, purchasing ISBNs, finding distribution, finding pre-press assistance, finding assistance for library of congress listings, finding the best printer, building a website, learning about direct mail campaigns, arranging participation in book festivals, the list goes on and I knew not one thing about any of it when I started last year. All these things together amount to a full time job that I’m doing while I do my other full time job, which is writing and making art for my books.
What’s thrown me lately is not the business so much as the artistic end of my next project, which you might not think would be where I’d run into problems. I’m working on a series with my brother, Daniel Kirk, a picture book author who many will know from his Library Mouse books. We’re writing stories based on our childhood, growing up with artistic parents in Ohio. It’s told from our two sometimes contrasting, sometimes overlapping views. What I find difficult is making pictures that are good looking but still express a seven-year-old’s view. My first thought was to make them look like a seven-year-old actually drew them, but that raises a lot of challenges – art done by seven-year-olds can be very charming, but isn’t good for maintaining a narrative. There are a lot of scenes and expressions that a seven-year-old just wouldn’t be good at drawing. So far, I’m using my art skills but trying to express that seven-year-old me at the same time. Daniel will be channeling his ten-year-old self. Looking at the art he did as a ten-year-old, I must say he was already very good!
BB: Do the technical aspects of the job overwhelm the creative ones? How do you find a balance?
DK: I went into this with experience in many publishing areas, but there were still a million things I needed to know. I’ve found help here and there, much of it through my pre-press helpers and my printer. I’ve also had help from friends and family in working out story ideas, which is always the most challenging task. If you don’t have a good story, your production won’t matter! The technical aspects can be overwhelming. I compensate by putting in more hours every day and always holding back at least a few of them for making art and story.
BB: So what do you have coming out on your initial run? What are you excited about?
DK: My first book, out now, is My Hugging Rules. It’s based on the many rules that my daughter Primrose made about being hugged by her little sister Wisteria when they were both very small. Wisteria was an enthusiastic hugger! It’s been gratifying doing book festivals and school visits, with this new book outselling all my old titles by a wide margin. As I mentioned above, the next thing I’m working on is a series with my brother. I’m quite excited about that – long ago, my old friend Peter Gabriel (I lived with his family for a month in 1978 and did fix-up projects on his cottage near Bath, England.) encouraged Dan and me to work on a project together. He jokingly said, “There’s money in brotherhood!” It’s taken forty years, but we’re finally getting to it. I hope Peter was right, but at the very least we’ll have fun working together.
Many thanks to David for submitting to my questions. Good luck with all your future endeavors, sir!
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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