How to Explain the Unexplainable

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

Editorial by Amy Koppelman

Amy Koppelman

Four years ago, when my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, my children asked my husband and me so many questions, most of which we couldn’t answer: “What is cancer? “Why does it happen?” “How is it diagnosed?” “How is it treated?” “Is it contagious?” I began Googling cancer books for children. There were several on the market, but they were either very childish (a story about a dinosaur’s mother) and/or scary (pictures of tumors and children with bald heads). I was looking for a book that explained cancer, one that said: this is what cancer is, this is how cancer develops in a person’s body, this is how it spreads, these are the ways to treat it and so on. What I’ve learned from my own experience as a parent is that the truth is often much less frightening to a child than what he or she may conjure up in their imagination. In response, I started a company called Is It Contagious? Books. We publish children’s books designed to explain and answer questions about the world’s most common diseases.

I never thought I’d become a publisher. I am a fiction writer who has published two novels, A Mouthful of Air (MacAdam/Cage, 2003) and I Smile Back (Two Dollar Radio, 2009)—as well as a mom. The perfect day for me is a successful trip to the supermarket, five hours alone in a room, and if I’m really lucky, a passable paragraph or two before I get my kids from school. The transition from author to publisher has been daunting and complicated, but it’s a journey I also feel is instructive.

For starters, I didn’t give myself the easiest of tasks. As the publisher of titles such as Is Cancer Contagious?, Is Epilepsy Contagious?, and Is Diabetes Contagious? I anticipated that there might be reluctance in the marketplace for these books. I have heard responses ranging from “They are too depressing” and “People don’t want to think about illness,” which are reasonable if misguided assumptions; to replies that make little sense to me, such as “Who is the consumer?” and “The market isn’t big enough.”

I can understand why some people might not want to confront the issue of illness head-on, opting in some instances to shelter their children from reality, but the fact is that kids understand a lot more than we sometimes think they dois-it-contagious and are better off if parents treat them with honesty. That is something our books, I think, do very well. The books are well-written and informative, and the illustrations by artist Vern Kousky are engaging and in no way graphic—in other words, they are entirely appropriate for explaining a disease to a child.

As to the question of audience, well, people do get sick every day. Increasingly, as people opt to have children later and later in life, there is the likelihood that a relative, friend, or even parent or a child themselves, may come down with a serious illness while a child is still young. In the years it took to get these books made, my best friends’ son got diabetes, another friend’s child got diagnosed with epilepsy, and my mother-in-law died of cancer. The simple fact is that there is an audience for these books: it is estimated that two out of every three people will battle some form of cancer throughout their lifetime and nearly one out of every 100 Americans has experienced epilepsy. It’s just not something many of us are comfortable acknowledging, let alone discussing, especially with children. That is something these books strive to alleviate. My hope is that the Is It Contagious? series will help dispel fear and enable better dialogue between family members, doctors, and friends.

That said, the road to publication has not been easy or simple. I made a lot of mistakes along the way and learned a lot of things I had no idea about. Here is my top ten list of tips when becoming a small publisher, some are obvious (these are the first tips, so feel free to skip ahead) and others are geared to working with books are that tackle a difficult topic:

1.      Make sure that you have a clear vision of the kind of books you want to publish. If you are soliciting completed manuscripts there is less room for error. But if you are working with a concept you have to make sure that your vision is clear. Who is your audience?  How long do you want the book to be? What do you want the book to say? If it’s an illustrated book what do you want the images to look like?

2.      Test run: It can be beneficial to conduct some form of focus group with the intended audience. Do the illustrations make sense? After the book is completed does the intended audience understand what the author is saying? Was the book interesting to read?

3.      Fact check: It is critically important that the books do not present false or derogatory information, and that, for a technical book, analogies and metaphors can be found that satisfy both the specialist and general audiences. Consulting with specialists is of great value. Also, it is important to extensively fact check. The Internet is filled with false and incorrect information.

4.      Cost outlay: An understanding of total cost outlay is necessary. What will the total cost be for all production, prepress, shipping, and advertising? Make sure you budget at least 10% for unexpected costs.

5.      Materials: The look and feel of a book should be carefully thought out. The type of paper, the paper’s thickness, hardcover or soft cover, and binding will all affect the way a book is perceived by the intended audience.  It’s a good idea to spend some time in the library or bookstore to figure out what you want.

6.      Sales venues: In the changing world of retail distribution, prospective publishers must have a clear understanding of where to go to reach their audiences. Many large chains are reluctant to stock titles that are not backed from a major publishing house or that are not sold through a major distributor. Local markets and non-traditional venues should be sought out. For example, we are reaching out to pharmaceutical companies, doctor’s offices, treatment centers, and hospitals because they provide excellent non-traditional sales opportunities.

7.      Marketing: How should marketing be done? With emerging technologies, there are more and more ways to market a book, the internet being prime among them. A carefully planned and executed website presents information to a virtually limitless audience.

8.      You need to get a copyright for the book once it’s completed.  You also need to get ISBN numbers for the book and barcodes. All of this can be done online.

9.      Amazon can be very confusing. What I ended up doing for my business is the following:  We have a Pro-merchant account and Amazon does fulfillment (meaning they send the books to consumer). I was going to do my own fulfillment, but realized it would be too much work along with everything else I’m doing so I decided just to link to Amazon. They take a chunk of the profit, but the books get to customers in a timely fashion. Also, if you have a website make sure you become an Amazon Associate. If someone links to Amazon from visiting your website and buys your products and/or other products you get a 4% commission.

10.  The biggest hurdle was finding an American manufacturer that could make our books for the same price and same quality as India and China. The long and short of it is this: If you are looking to have books manufactured, I would recommend you contact Lynn Carroll ( from Worzalla publishers in Ohio. They will help you every step of the way.

My last piece of advice is this:  When you are pulling your hair out because you can’t get your Amazon account to work properly or your website keeps crashing, just picture your reader. In truth, there is no explaining the inexplicable. My father-in-law eventually survived his cancer. My mother-in-law wasn’t so lucky. She was a vibrant, loving, devoted mother and grandmother. Is Cancer Contagious? couldn’t have explained her death, but it certainly would have made it easier to answer some of the complicated questions my children asked. Somewhere out there, someone is in need of what you have to offer. You just need to find a way to bring it to them.

CONTACT: Amy Koppelman directly

VISIT: The Web site of Is It Contagious? Books

BONUS: Is a Kids Book About Cancer Too Tough to Sell?

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.