Imagine real astronauts aboard the International Space Station reading stories from space to school children and families around the world, in an exciting new program that combines literature with science education.
That’s the tag line for a new program called “Story Time From Space,” which is scheduled to launch its first set of books to the International Space Station shortly after I deliver this column. Even cooler—and forcing me to pinch myself to be sure I’m not dreaming—they chose my five children’s books as the first set. Coming more than 10 years after I first started “self-publishing” these books, it’s very gratifying to think that children, parents, and teachers around the world will soon be able to see videos of astronauts reading my books from orbit. Let me tell you a bit about how it came about.
I’m a scientist by training (Ph.D. in astrophysics), but I’ve devoted most of my career to teaching and education. I began working with elementary-age children early on, and soon wanted to write science books for kids. It took me a long time (about 20 years!) to come up with an idea, but one day on a walk with my young son and my dog Max, I looked up at the Moon in the morning sky and it hit me that kids love both dogs and space. I went home and started writing Max Goes to the Moon.
By that time I had begun to achieve success as an author of college textbooks (in astronomy, astrobiology, mathematics, and statistics). One day, my favorite editor called to tell me she was leaving the company, and we began to talk about future plans. She mentioned that she’d like to do something for younger children, I mentioned my children’s book idea, and before you knew it, she put together a team to help make it happen. Because this team represented experienced publishing professionals (and because my textbook sales meant I could afford the publishing costs) we decided that we didn’t need the help of a traditional publisher. Now you can see why I put “self-published” in quotes, because while my imprint Big Kid Science is self-financed, it has a fully professional publishing team doing the editorial, design, and production work.
In retrospect, we were quite naïve about the trade book market. Max Goes to the Moon earned several awards and great reviews, but little in the way of sales. Nevertheless, when Max (the dog) was diagnosed with cancer, I found it therapeutic to write another book about him, and in 2006 we put out Max Goes to Mars. Again, it received a few honors and nice reviews, but sales were very low. I soon found myself with so many unsold books that I started contacting school districts, offering to donate a book for each of their elementary school libraries. The offer proved popular, and within months I’d placed books in more than 5,000 individual schools. (My current total is over 23,000 books in school libraries in more than 60 countries.)
The library donations did not change the sales picture, but they dramatically changed my attitude about what constitutes “success.” I write my books with three clear goals in mind: I want to educate kids about science, I want to give them a new perspective on themselves and our planet Earth, and I want to inspire them to dream of how they can help make the world a better place. I realized that success should be defined by the number of kids that I could reach. As I heard from librarians and teachers about how much my books were being read, I knew that I was achieving my goals.
I’ve continued to self-publish, and while sales are still a long way from making the venture profitable, the intangible rewards leave me with no regrets. I put out Max Goes to Jupiter in 2009, The Wizard Who Saved the World in 2012, and Max Goes to the Space Station just published on Nov. 1 of this year. I also did an updated edition of Max Goes to the Moon to accompany a new planetarium show (produced by Fiske Planetarium in Boulder) based on the book, and I just published my first Big Kid Science book for adults, Math for Life.
So do I recommend the self-publishing path to others? For most people, my answer is “no,” primarily because as my own case illustrates, you’ll almost certainly lose money. Indeed, while we’ve all heard of self-published authors with bestsellers, these are the equivalent of lottery winners, and I’d bet that no more than 1 in 1,000 self-published authors ever turns a profit. Unless you are prepared to lose the money you’ll spend self-publishing—which can range from a few hundred dollars for an e-book without art to tens of thousands of dollars for an illustrated children’s book—then your best bet by far is to seek out a traditional publisher.
However, if you are fortunate enough that the financial downsides won’t bother you, and if you think you have something unique to offer, then self-publishing has at least a few benefits. You’ll have total control over both process and quality, and as the owner of all rights you’ll be free to do things that most traditional publishers would shy away from, such as donating thousands of copies of your books or granting free rights to a planetarium that wants to use your work. And if you’re really lucky, maybe something truly unexpected will happen. If you are in the book business, then you know that publishers use the term “book launch” as every new book gets underway. But I can assure you that until the day my phone rang and a woman on the other end told me my books had been chosen for Story Time From Space, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that my books would soon be part of what may be the first literal book launch in history.
Jeffrey Bennett, Ph.D., is the founder of Big Kid Science and the author of five children’s books. He also writes textbooks and books for adults—his most recent being Math for Life. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.