We are beyond thrilled to congratulate our client, partner and friend, I.M. Lerner, on the publication of the second book in her Under the Staircase children’s book series, The Hidden Entrance. We are again honored to have helped her bring this vision to life through illustration, design and layout.
I interviewed I.M. as part of our 6 Questions feature: a series of interviews to learn more about the people we work with and the amazing things that they do. We had so much fun helping with her first book, The Secret Under the Staircase, and it’s been a true delight to continue this relationship as we work together to spread the word about economic freedom.
Read on to learn more about navigating the world of book publishing and where she finds inspiration!
1. Why should economic principles be introduced to kids and how do they benefit from those lessons?
It’s funny because the thing I hear most from adults is, “I wish I had these books when I was a kid.” Economics is called “the dismal science”—often with good reason. When people look at economics, they see formulas and graphs and dry text. But at the end of the day, these lessons are the basics of the choices we make and how we live our lives.
Economics is unfortunately not often taught in schools. If kids are lucky, they may learn the terminology: supply and demand, incentives, scarcity, etc. If they’re very lucky, they may even get to try out some real life scenarios. But it’s still all…academic. They miss out on the joy—and yes, I just put “joy” and “economics” in the same sentence—of Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and many other economists and economic philosophers who, using their research findings as a base, discuss the moral implications of various systems and models. The role of the individual and the role of the state, voluntary exchange versus forced exchange, individual liberty and economic freedom.
We don’t give kids enough credit. They understand these concepts at a core level because they see examples around them each and every day. It’s actually very easy for them to pick these things up, before common sense has been drilled out. Adults understand, often later in life, how important it is for kids to learn these lessons…the earlier the better. It becomes part of their moral fiber.
2. What do you want parents and their children to take away from the books?
I have two wonderful young kids. They’re the reason I started writing these books. And it’s been really cool to talk to other parents, grandparents and folks all over the world who write to let me know why they enjoy the books, and why they view them as so important for their loved ones. We’re all hoping to prepare the next generation for what comes their way.
Knowing and being exposed to these economic concepts lends a real perspective on how you want to live your life and how you want to leave the world for future generations. But what are the right words, or the right time, or the best delivery? Because we know if kids think a speech is heading their way, they’ll run! So, from a child’s perspective, it’s important that the books are entertaining so they can enjoy the story and characters.
The stories anticipate the issues we know will be coming their way. The process is natural to them because they’re going through it with the characters, and they get to think through the implications using examples they are very familiar with. And while we hope they don’t ever have to experience these hardships in real life, at least we’ll know that if they do, they’ll have the knowledge to take them on.
The books are a little sneaky in that way—like a delicious dessert that just happens to be healthy.
3. What made you decide to add “children’s book author” to your resume? What did it take to make your dream a reality?
I’m an accidental author. My career path was completely different. I’d been a business-minded entrepreneur who merely enjoyed reading economics books and articles. I thought of econ as fun, but separate from my “real job” running my own business for seven years.
But I couldn’t wait to introduce the works of the great economists and economic philosophers to my kids. And as they started school, I realized the sooner the better. I saw how they loved to read mysteries and adventures. And a funny thing happened: I started waking up with these stories in my head and these characters who started to take shape. I began writing it all down. At first I wrote on anything I could find, such as napkins and scrap paper. I would wake up and want to write more down, so I moved onto a pad that I started keeping next to my bed.
I knew I wanted to write something for my kids—if nothing else—but I wondered, “Am I the only one? Does anyone else care?” I started a Kickstarter campaign last year to answer those questions. The experience was absolutely amazing. Not only did we raise twice as much as planned, but I was further inspired by emails from across the country and world by people writing in support of bringing the economic adventures series to life, and everything kind of snowballed from there.
Making my dream into a reality was really catapulted by the Kickstarter campaign and follow-up, including being able to reach out to folks who are so talented and experienced. It moved further along into reality as I put together the dream team of people who helped make it all happen. My co-author in California is amazing. BatesMeron Sweet Design brings the characters to life in the books and throughout the brand. We put together this motley crew that just all clicked.
And through it all, I’ve been so blessed with support from so many people, particularly my family, and especially my wonderful husband. I’m a big fan of science fiction and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. While Bradbury was writing that book, he lived in the library for 10 days or so and just wrote. So I pitched my book writing to my husband as: “What if I were to have an entire weekend in a hotel to just write…?”
“Go for it!” was his reply. He took care of the kids solo while I hunkered down in a nearby hotel room to write. It was amazing.
When I think about what made this happen, it’s honestly an entire crew of great people and an inspiring response from both parents and kids. The kids in particular helped with character development while telling me that they liked this or that character because of such-and-such reason and through the insight of the questions they asked. “What’s going to happen here?” and “When will we see so-and-so again?” were a few of their many sneaky attempts to get information from me about future books and story lines!
4. What has been the biggest surprise going into children’s book publishing? What kind of advice would you have for someone looking to publish?
I honestly had no expectations, so everything was a surprise, but during the Kickstarter campaign, several publishers reached out inquiring about supporting the book from a publishing standpoint. The hardest thing is that “you don’t know what you don’t know,” so learning about other people’s experiences talking with other authors, publishers and folks from the publishing world and getting a sense of the questions to ask was incredibly helpful.
Deciding what your priorities are is the greatest piece of advice I can share. You must think through what’s important to you. To me, it was important to have the flexibility to change things quickly. I knew that I wouldn’t have all the answers. I was concerned about carrying too much or too little inventory. So I ultimately went with a print-on-demand model. This gave me more control and I could make changes as I learned more about what worked and what didn’t.
With that model it was really neat to see in real-time what the demand was, rather than having thousands of books in a warehouse. The entire process has been a great study in the power of e-commerce. This print-on-demand model freed up a lot of my time to work on the core writing and marketing pieces. Technology has revolutionized publishing in everything from operations on the publishing and distribution sides, which is a huge advancement.
The most important thing I learned was to talk to those who’ve been through the process and to learn to be flexible and adjust. The new technologies have made it possible to have a broad reach without having to be a multi-million dollar publisher. These advancements have truly leveled the playing field.
My best advice is to try to speak with as many people as you can who have been through the process—especially those who have chosen any of the various paths within the spectrum between self-publishing and all the way up to working with a big-name publisher. It’s great to learn what the implications are and I learned it all by talking with the folks who have lived it.
5. How do you create your stories—not just one, but SIX eventual books in the series? Where do you find inspiration?
Creating my stories is one of those creepy wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night things. From the beginning, I envisioned this as an entire series so I have detailed outlines of all six books, including when certain ideas come together and when to introduce new characters and story lines. I’ve always viewed the whole story entirely, even while publishing one book at a time.
My co-author, Catherine, is an absolutely amazing storyteller. We have this great rhythm for each book, from initial outline to the final story. We each have our strengths and interests—I enjoy the econ and creating the detailed outlines, and she loves the dialogue and the writing and we hand back and forth like a relay race. Both Catherine and I love research, especially historical research, and we have a lot of fun adding the layers to the story.
My inspiration comes partially from imagining what I wished to happen with the story paired with thoughts and feedback from talking to my readers. This process often finds me thinking. “They really enjoy this idea, so is there a way to work that in?” It’s all a matter of envisioning the whole, and sneaking in important pieces.
Talking to the kids and seeing their reactions is inspiring. I love reading different economics books and works of econ philosophers, and I enjoy likening the concepts to examples that kids would relate to. There’s the art to combining the econ side with the mystery and adventure.
The process is like the construction of a building: you see the frame for each level, then they start adding the walls, the windows, and the carpet. Storytelling is similar. I have a six-story skyscraper and I’m adding windows and wallpaper as I go.
That said, some things deviate. I might have thought the story would go in one direction, but as you get into the spirit of the characters you see that some things need to go in other directions.
6. What can you tell us about your experiences working with BatesMeron on your book series? While we love helping you bring these characters to life visually, we’d like your thoughts on the process and communication.
As soon as I finished working with BMSD for book one, I immediately asked, “Can you guys help with book two?” One of the things I value most about working with BMSD is their ability to bring my characters to life. The illustrations within each of the chapters really make the scenes, and the covers grab attention and add to the story. The kids love the motion BMSD’s illustrations create and they enjoy being able to see it all happen visually.
BMSD has also been instrumental on the marketing side by providing the messaging that goes along with getting attention and effectively getting the word out.
But what makes working with BMSD truly spectacular is that they read the books before we started each project. I remember for book one, I was envisioning something for an illustration and BMSD designer Melissa reminded me of something that had happened earlier in the chapter and asked if we should incorporate it as well. It was awesome! That kind of interaction contributed to the building of the story’s presentation versus merely following direction. When you have that level of engagement on your design team’s end, you’re able to trust that the crew not only has your best interests, but they’re also thinking two steps ahead.
The second thing that makes working with BMSD great is that they have been incredibly supportive of the series as a whole, helping to reach other markets, kids and helping raising awareness. They’ve simply been awesome to work with!
Working together, we would get into this rhythm to figure out what works best. I appreciated seeing illustrations in really rough draft in order to envision what the final would look like so I could see how it went from concept to final. It was so neat! These are works of art and they’re beautiful.
Process-wise, one of the things that really struck me was the first initial discussion with BMSD and the resulting game plan before we got started. Thinking it through together then, and now that we’ve finished book two, helped us to establish and keep a flow to understand things and be able to create. Having that first conversation laid such a great foundation.
Overall, BMSD has given tremendous support from start to finish in helping bring a dream to life. It’s humbling and I can’t say enough about it.