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Saturday, January 1, 2005

Self-Publishing Success Story

A husband-and-wife team takes their photography to the best-seller‚’s list

Self-Publishing Success Story

Professional wildlife photographers Carl Sams and Jean Stoick were in their home studio editing images for their coffee-tablebook on white-tailed deer. Of the thousands of photographs this husband-and-wife team had accumulated over a decade of shooting together, they could select only 140 for the book. One image that wasn't making the cut suddenly sparked an idea. Stoick was eyeing a photograph of a white-tailed deer interacting with a snowman. As Sams recalls, Stoick looked up at him and said, "If we were to do a grown-up book, we could only use a few of these wonderful, fun images. In a children's book, we could use them all." "I looked at her like she had lost her mind," says Sams, yet she insisted. His wife sat by the fireplace, sketching out an idea. An hour later, she returned with a complete sketch of the book. "I was reluctant at first," he says, but after looking over her ideas, Sams was convinced. "I agreed that she was onto something special." The quickly sketched inspiration became Stranger in the Woods (ISBN: 0967174805), a self-published children's book that tells the story of wildlife's reaction to the unexpected presence of a snowman. The book has found a home in the top rankings of The New York Times best-seller's list for the last five years, and it has led to a sequel, Lost in the Woods (ISBN: 0967174880), which promises to be just as successful. Not bad for a book they were told would never sell.

The Journey To Self-Publishing
"When we talked to publishers about our idea, they weren't encouraging," Sams remembers. "They told us that children's books with photographs simply don't sell." Inspired by the idea of developing a project over which they would have total artistic control, the couple depleted their savings to pay for the production and printing, and published Stranger in the Woods themselves.

While this wasn't their first published book—Sams and Stoick had published traditional photographic books through established publishers before—this time, they were on their own. Their idea was rooted in years of experience, however, including a library of more than 60,000 images. Together since 1972, Sams and Stoick had built a relationship nurtured by a mutual love for artistic expression through photography.

"In the early years, I spent as much time shooting as I could fit into my busy life selling real estate with my father," Sams explains. "I'd get up before dawn and head straight to Kensington Metro Park, just outside of Detroit, and photograph animals and nature in the early-morning light before heading off to work. Then I'd return after work and shoot until dark. Jean would join me after work and on weekends when we weren't at art shows selling our photography."

It was through such art shows that the couple created a market for their fine-art prints and a reputation for excellence. This customer base would later prove crucial to the success of Stranger in the Woods. First, they had to design and publish the book.

"I had strong, visual ideas on how the book and page layout should look," recalls Stoick. "Carl was like a dog gnawing a bone in learning the updated version of Photoshop and worked long hours into the night. I'd write the script and Carl would read the lines, and when he'd stumble, I'd rewrite the words to fit his mouth. When he could read the story from start to finish without stumbling, we called it finished."

"We wanted all the pictures to have that beautiful, snowy, winter wonderland look you see when a fresh layer of snow is resting on the tree limb," Sams says, so as well as culling from their existing inventory of images, they spent time in the field exposing many rolls of film. Mother Nature wasn't always cooperative, however.

"Once the sun came out and the snow melted, we stopped shooting and waited for the next storm," he says. "We built lots of snowmen that year."

Once they finalized their selection, the images were professionally scanned. They were loaded onto Macintosh computers and laid out electronically, along with the text.

Says Sams, "We spent every free moment working on Stranger in the Woods. The laptop came with us so we could work while we traveled from art show to art show." The couple even worked while on the road; one drove while the other worked on the layout on the computer. Traffic jams provided time for both of them to look at the computer's monitor and their evolving book.


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