Designers' publishing gamble pays off

By James Russell

Couple took plunge and followed dream, writes James Russell

Tell people you plan to make a living out of self publishing your own children's books, and you'll likely be met with shocked disbelief, nervous laughter or even patronising pity.

Throw in the deliberate abandonment of a successful business and a solid income and you may see them fearfully back away.

Mark and Rowan Sommerset did just that. Their design agency of three years - with a nice line in corporate branding - was going well.

"We were making money and we were growing but we felt we were standing in a barrel," says Rowan.

"We knew we could keep doing what we were doing, and continue to be successful at it, but it wasn't really what we wanted to do. It could have been a trap."

They left their cosy, prosperous home office in Takapuna and moved north to the shores of the Kai Iwi lakes on the west coast, north of Dargaville.

Their plan: to write, illustrate, self-publish and sell children's books to the point where they could make a decent living out of it.

Since then the couple have built a successful business, making a comfortable living from their five books in print.

"We didn't know what we were in for, but I'm glad we did it," says Mark from their home on Waiheke Island, where they live in idyllic bliss with their 3-year-old son. They moved to Waiheke after the success of their first book called them increasingly to Auckland, yet they weren't keen to re-join big city life.

Cork on the Ocean was the first Dreamboat book (the name of their publishing company), and Rowan convinced Mark to print 5000.

"At the time I thought that was small," laughs Rowan.

Adds Mark: "Looking back it was quite a naive decision in some ways - especially when we had a typo in that first edition - but we just did it. We thought 'we can make it, we have the skills'."

But first they travelled to the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany to find out what it was all about.

"It was pretty crazy," says Mark. "We had no money - it stressed me out to the max. We put it all on the credit card as all our savings from the design agency had gone by this point."

"We had to take the leap," adds Rowan. "Lots of people warned us not to go as creative people because we would be overwhelmed. But we came back feeling that we had something different to offer."

On their return they got down to the business of selling the book. There was also the small matter of the debt they had incurred to pay for printing it. It took 2 years to sell that initial print run. They have since re-printed the book twice in hardback while selling the paperback rights to Random House NZ.

The couple hit the mark when they sent the book - positioned as a premium product - to galleries and design stores around the country.

"We had a 90 per cent tick rate," says Mark. "We had produced something that was distinctive enough for them to be interested in it. There were also a few who said: 'Oh, you've only got the one book - I can't be bothered'."

Such was the case with the larger retail chain stores, and it wasn't until their third book came out, having had their second published by Random House NZ, that they managed to attract the chains' attention.

"We borrowed again for printing, twice as much as last time," says Mark.

"It is only really in the past two years we have started to come out on top."

The critical acclaim and awards have also given the couple's books a boost, both in recognition and sales.

Book three, Baa Baa Smart Sheep, won the coveted Children's Choice award at the NZ Post Children's Book Awards, and recently their book Two Little Bugs picked up the top prize at the PANZ Book Design Awards. It has also been selected as a White Raven - a list of 250 outstanding children's books from around the world compiled by the International Youth Library in Germany.

Mark is a regular at the weekly Ostend Market on Waiheke selling their books, something he relishes as a chance to connect with his audience and, occasionally, make important contacts. "Markets are great. Our break into Whitcoulls came because I was at Titirangi Market one day and the operations manager came along with his wife who knew and loved our books. She said: 'How come they're not at Whitcoulls?' One thing led to another and six months later they were."

Mark also regularly visits schools where he reads from his book and plays original songs from his past life as a musician. "I'm a bit of a kid myself so I really enjoy it."

The hunger for knowledge around the self-publishing industry has grown to a point that the couple are contacted, as often as every week, about how they went about making it work. It is something about which they are remarkably candid and helpful. As Rowan says: "That was us a few years ago."

So what does the future hold for the Sommersets? Their books are now available in all major bookstores around the country and interest is building overseas, with possible rights and distribution deals in Europe and Asia.

Mark will be travelling to the Frankfurt book fair again in October, and from December their most recent titles will be available across the Tasman after negotiating a deal with HarperCollins Australia. "We are truly thrilled about that," says Mark.

There are several new books in the pipeline, and e-books are also planned.

Rowan has built the Dreamboat Books website (dreamboatbooks.com) and the couple also have a blog site that overflows with side projects. "Our plans are flexible and changing all the time," says Rowan.

- NZ Herald

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