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.
The Real Work Begins
"The work doesn't end when you have the finished book in your hands," Sams points out. "In fact, the hardest part is yet to come," especially since their initial publishing run left them with no money for distribution or marketing. "When we went home with the final press sheets of our book, we were excited, exhausted and realized that our work had only just begun. We now had to figure out how on earth we were going to sell 20,000 books."
Adds Stoick, "The most challenging aspect of self-publishing is learning how to promote your book and how to distribute nationwide."
Despite that daunting task, they still were encouraged by the favorable response they received from the people who had become regular customers of their fine-art prints.
"During the art shows, I'd show my customers the layout and they immediately wanted to buy," says Sams. Even before the first print run, they had already sold 250 copies based on the proofs alone. That was only the beginning.
"It was November before we finally had the finished product in our hands," he continues. "We knew if we wanted to make any of our money back that year, we had to get them in the market before the holidays. So Jeannie and I loaded carton after carton of books into the back of our car and drove them to Northern Michigan."
Although the couple had no money for advertising, the press and television news stations became interested when they learned that some profits from the sale of the books were being donated to several nonprofit organizations.
Says Sams, "We teamed up with the Grand Traverse Land Conservancy and the Little Traverse Land Conservancy, and offered to donate a portion of our profits toward the conservation of Michigan's wild places." The couple also involved the Rainbow Connection, a organization that helps make dreams come true for children suffering life-threatening illnesses.
When a national chain bookstore showed interest in the book, Sams and Stoick insisted that they follow through with the donations as well. To their surprise, the bookstore chain agreed.
"This came back to us tenfold," Sams recalls. "When the media caught hold of what we were doing, the stores began selling out of books quicker than snow melts in July, and Stranger in the Woods was soon number one in Northern Michigan's best-seller's list. Our initial print run disappeared before Christmas."
Today, there are more than 1.1 million copies of Stranger in the Woods in print. It has won seven awards and spent 26 weeks on The New York Times best-seller's list, hitting the number-one spot in December 2002. The success of the book also meant nearly $50,000 for the trio of nonprofit organizations.
Now, with Lost in the Woods, the photographer team has hopes of enjoying the success of their previous book. That success made the idea of a second book a little intimidating, however.
"The reaction to our first book was amazing," says Sams. "That's why it was so hard to finish the second one. We wanted to make sure that it was as good, or better, than the first. We had a tough act to follow." Many details changed with the production of the second book. One of the major elements was the couple's use of digital cameras.
"Our images are all shot digitally now," says Sams, who explains that the couple uses Canon EOS-1Ds cameras. "There's no scanning involved, with the exception of those images we pull from our slide archives. Now we can spend a morning shooting and know almost immediately if we have the shot we're after. Where we used to fill file cabinets with our slides, we now fill them with DVDs."
The results have pleased Sams and Stoick, as well as their faithful readers. The story of a lone fawn in the woods, Lost in the Woods was number one in the Midwest within two weeks of its release, and has been nominated for Book of the Year in the Great Lakes region. It's currently on The New York Times best-seller's list, easily competing with more heavily marketed books by major publishers, including The Polar Express.
"We want our readers to remember gentle lessons," says Stoick. "We want them to appreciate the natural world and the uniqueness of its birds and animals."
To learn more about Carl Sams and Jean Stoick, visit their website at www.carlsams.com.