Author-Illustrator Spotlight: DJ Corchin
Happy Tuesday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!
Quick plug for #PBCritiqueFest! PB Spotlight will continue hosting this unique annual critique celebration with a few dozen authors, illustrators, and agents. More info will be coming in the next few weeks!
Today's theme is all about that ugly little word we all know very well and hate very much.
Nope. Not now. Not this. Not that. Never. Absolutely not. Try again. Denied. Maybe not? Negative, ghost rider.
Our relationship with no is deep. It's one of the first words we really understand as children. Even as toddlers, it was that word they kept saying whenever we wanted something and when they said it...we didn't get what we wanted.
There's immense power in no. We say no to express loss. Disgust. Regret. Disappointment. We say no as a demand. A refusal. A line in the sand. And a million-and-a-half other reasons.
As kidlit creators seeking representation, hearing no is commonplace. It's hard to hear no when we pour ourselves into our work and want so desperately for that work to see the light of day. To have a chance. To breathe. To not be set aside or placed on the shelf or put in a drawer, tucked away until its light fades.
While I wish that were the end of my rejection story, even after starting my partnership with Melissa and even after my debut book deal, I have been rejected many times and continued my relationship with no. If I was a betting man, I'd wager my journey with no is far from over. And if I want to be very honest with myself...it's probably just begun.
How has your own relationship with no been? Maybe you're a seasoned veteran. Maybe you and no go way back and know each other very well. Or maybe you have yet to begin querying and so no is lingering off in the distance. Or maybe you just started submitting and that first no has yet to happen. But you know it's coming. It's there. Hovering in the air. Condensing somewhere in the atmosphere. About to drop...
Whatever your relationship with no, the truth is that we all deal with it. Published, agented, or not. So what do we do about no? How do we continue the walk when no is all we seem to hear? All we seem to see? How much no can the human heart take before it breaks beyond repair? How do we press on with 1,000 no's?
Enter DJ Corchin and our Author-Illustrator Spotlight. His book, A THOUSAND NO's, illustrated by Dan Dougherty is something that totally caught me off guard. Maybe I had recently experienced a no or maybe I was unconsciously being crushed under the weight of multiple no's and wasn't aware of it. This book brought it all out. After reading, I sat there in the library with real man-tears in my eyes and felt something twisted melt away in my chest. Catharsis. Plato's purgation of emotions on full display in the children's section of the library. Talk about a stiff left hook to my heart's face. POW--right in the heart nose.
And yet...no doesn't have the final word over us. Unless we let it.
This book also has an unconventional story behind its creation. For those of you with unconventional stories on the path to publication or for anyone who has experience with or is interested in self publishing, this post is especially for you.
Ha! I had to take some time to think about this question (and this was supposed to be the easy intro question!). I have many jobs right now. Currently I have a full time job as well as being a full time author, not to mention a parent. I wear a billion hats. Literally a billion, which makes storage in my living space a problem. But when I think about what may be consistent amongst all the jobs I have, at least in terms of “need,” is that I can’t do any of them without the help and support of others. Whether it’s my family, my coworkers, my partners-in-crime, their support is crucial in my success. I think you’ll also find this theme throughout my writing as well.
What’s something you absolutely must have in your refrigerator or pantry?
Chocolate chips. In a jar. From a bag. Chocolate chips. I’m notorious for taking handfuls at a time, throwing them back in one take, and walking away like a squirrel looking to store an acorn for Winter. By doing it this way I assure that those calories do not count.
You have a unique path to traditional publication that I honestly haven’t heard about in the kidlit community. You went from successfully self published to Sourcebooks Superstar. This basically doesn’t happen. For those of us unfamiliar with your journey, how did all of your books end up at Sourcebooks!?
As a famous inventor once said, “You can only connect the dots backwards.” The universe came together at a single point in time which came in the form of an artist alley table at the C2E2 "Comic Con” in Chicago. I had to go to the bathroom really bad. As I felt the impulse from my brain to my legs saying “let’s go” I started transferring weight. But I caught the eye of someone looking at my table from afar. Not wanting to miss the chance for a sale, I transferred the weight back to center and waved. She came over to the table and was looking at the books in a way that most people don’t in an artist alley. She asked if they were self-published and when I replied yes, she smiled and complimented me on their quality both in content and production. We got to talking and she said she used to work for Sourcebooks and I should send them to Dominque Raccah, who is the CEO. Dominque responded in kind and after a few conversations with my incredible editor Kelly Barrales-Saylor, I felt connected to their mission and way of looking at publishing. It was a great fit and I suddenly had a contract for all 24 of my titles.
The real journey though was the years prior learning about the industry, making a lot of mistakes, building relationships, and fine-tuning my pitches. It allowed for that two minute conversation in front of my table to take place. The dots, although not a straight line, connected in a wondrous way.
As self publishing continues to be more and more accessible to authors and illustrators looking for more autonomy over their IP, as well as the freedom to create, what are some of the tricks of the trade that you’ve really taken to heart for kidlit creators interested in pursuing this path to publication? Why should authors and illustrators seriously consider self pub and what challenges are baked into the cake if they do?
First of all, I mean, how good is cake? Second, I could talk about this question for weeks straight and still not hit everything. Third, if you are going to self-publish you have to immediately realize you are no longer just an author. You are now in the business of book publishing. If you don’t think that will be interesting enough for you to the point that you won’t persevere through the obstacles that will inevitably come, you should not do it. You will not enjoy it, and your book quality will suffer for it.
To start off let’s just define two terms that often get conflated, Self-Publishing and Print-on-Demand (POD). Self-Publishing refers to publishing a book yourself and all that is included in the creation, production, sale, and distribution of a book. Print-On-Demand is a mechanism to do some of these things, primarily printing and distribution. The reason this is important is specifically around picture books. Since self-publishing authors often use POD services, it’s important to note that it’s difficult to self-publish a picture book due to the current technology restrictions of POD. The picture books I’ve tried through various POD services, are currently very low quality (in my opinion) and are very expensive. Almost everyone I’ve ever seen do this is disappointed with the final product. (Which is supposed to be the big reveal moment!). However, for YA and text only (or mostly) paperback books, POD is amazing. Especially for distribution. Most offer immediate global availability. That is amazing.
Next, when you talk about control over your IP, like many things in the legal world there are plenty of caveats. I won’t go into all the details, but things like ISBN’s referencing the POD company and not you, Library of Congress Numbers, Copyright, etc., are all things you still need to look at. In particular if you go with a smaller POD company.
For picture books, it is absolutely possible to self-publish. In my opinion, it really means (at least at this time) to go full speed ahead into being your own publisher. This means printing through more traditional channels. Some local printers are getting better at pricing offset printing and not having to buy 10,000 copies. But, investment into inventory is going to happen. The upside is that even though the technology for POD picture books is not great, the technology for crowd-source funding is. This allows for a path to print somewhat closer to the big houses.
That’s the easy part. The hardest part of self-publishing this way is distribution and marketing. The biggest (and best) mistake I made in self-publishing was ordering 3000 copies of a beautiful, colorful, best produced picture book I’ve ever seen and still having 2500 copies of them in my storage unit. Oh yeah... you’ll need a storage unit.
If you can’t sell the books, don’t print it. You’ll be sad staring at boxes and there’s plenty of other, more interesting things to be staring at while sad.
The last thing I’ll mention is around contracts. Specifically around illustrators. Illustrators are artists that deserve to be paid and recognized for their work. Do not offer exposure. Do not offer possibilities. Offer money, for specific work. Be clear and have a contract even if they’re your friend. In fact, I always say have a contract BECAUSE you’re friends. I’ve done Work for Hire and I’ve done Royalties. Work For Hire is easier. Royalties are great if you’re making money but it’s a lot of work to track accurately.
There are countless details involved in everything I said, but best advice is dive in, learn, never pay anyone anything for “promises,” and learn to read contract language. Aaaaaandddd.....exhale.
Your first book re-published by Sourcebooks, A THOUSAND NO’S, which came out this August generated a bit of an...apostrophe catastrophe (sorry, not sorry. I really couldn’t resist). As a high school English teacher who generally nerds out to most things English, I was fascinated by your blog post concerning the title’s apostrophe usage and some of the controversy surrounding it. I’m going to have to share your blog post with my students because I bet it will spark a fierce debate about the point of punctuation and how grammatical rules aren’t always black and white. Talk to us a little bit about what it was like to be removed from consideration for an award due to a “typo” on your cover and some of the conversations you’ve had with people regarding this English punctuation debate.
The first five minutes of reactions involved a lot of swearing from a children’s author. But it also motivated me to defend not just the use of the apostrophe, but the reasons why. It was me vs. the grammar police. And I was all about it. What was interesting is that other awards did not say a thing about it. So there clearly was some debate on this topic. The biggest issue I had with the award rejection was that they thought it was a typo that I missed. I still get comments and even direct messages saying they can’t believe an author or publisher would do this. “How could this happen?” “This is inappropriate.” etc. Someone recently went out of their way to find my website and contact me just to tell me how appalled they were. The funniest thing right now is I’ll get reviewers feeling like they have to educate me on why there shouldn’t be an apostrophe...like I missed it and they’re grading my three-page, double-spaced, 12-font, mid-semester paper. Some people ask me if that feels bad. Well I like data, and the reality is that usually only negative voices speak up. So if for every negative voice there’s 100 positive voices, then that means the more negative voices I get, the more positive there are x 100. I never thought growing up math would ever help me feel better about myself.
When someone tells me it’s wrong, I ask why. They tell me because it doesn’t follow the rules. I repeat and ask again why it’s WRONG. They seem to be baffled by the difference between not following the rules and something being wrong. You can make grandiose comparisons such as voting rights laws of the past (what’s a rule vs. what’s right), but I chose to dive deep into the internet bowels and found that even the English grammar world has trolls. They just tend to have more college degrees. Listen, if someone thinks language rules are written and can never change then I’ll probably just send back an eye roll emoji (which according to language purist, is also not appropriate written communication). But my choice for the apostrophe was to be clear in my communication not based on rules, but based on what is going to be most effective to get my point across. (Insert shoulder shrug, face palm, kissy face, and peach emoji)
Alright. Let’s dig into A THOUSAND NO’s. For starters, when I happened upon this book one evening shift at the library, I literally sat in the chair and felt something like a weight fall off my chest. Also, for the record, I can neither confirm nor deny if actual man-tears welled in my eyes (they totally did). Even as a (soon to be) published author who has had a significant yes, I still face no’s of various sizes and it adds up. I personally experienced 600 no’s before I got my agent so this book just really got me in the best of ways. I thought, I need to Tweet about this book NOW. So I did.
There are so many of us wading knee deep in a swamp of no’s. And not just in writing. Life says no. Often. Relentlessly. I think this book really gets that right. What’s the story behind this story, and how did this growth mindset poster child come about?
Thanks! The visuals of you crying, sitting in a library aisle exhaling... really brings me back. There’s a pool of my tears embedded on the carpet floor of my library as well. At least I think it’s my tears. I shared one of the literal inspirations for the story in my blog post “I met John Hughes. Now I'm an award-winning children's author.” Another inspiration was getting to speak to an Industrial Designer at Apple who helps design the iPhone. The short version of the story is that I asked him if he felt excited about seeing the thing he created up on the big keynote screen when Steve Jobs (prior to Tim Cook) would announce it. I made a smart comment, “Like that corner right there...I designed that!” His answer was quite profound for me. He said that by the time the final product gets on that keynote so many talented people had their hand in fine tuning that corner that I may have initially designed, but now it’s way better because of their input. So they all own it at that time.
I took that to heart and started talking about effective brainstorming with teams and how that is one of the quickest ways to a great innovative culture. Imagine if we could teach children to embrace other’s ideas and suggestions about something they are creating without ego or jealousy getting in the way? Think about the things that could have been invented already if others wouldn’t have been concerned about getting the sole credit for something. No one knows for sure, but I think there’s enough examples out there to say our society would be much farther along in existing as one world together, than we are now.
I got my degree in music education always wanting to be a high school band director. Right after college I got a job in the first national tour of the Broadway show, BLAST! (Think Stomp combined with Marching Band &Theater) riding a unicycle and playing the trombone at the same time... as one does. While there, I started a music outreach program that spoke to kids all across the country whatever city we were in. - Story Jump -
My grandmother went to high school with Shel Silverstein. I have her yearbook with his signature which is one of my favorite possessions. When I would be (fake) sick from school I would stay at my grandparent’s house while my mother worked. My grandfather would always read Shel’s poems in funny voices which I still hear in my head when I read the books now. I fell in love with the writing and illustrations. - Back to the Story -
I took the experiences I learned from all the different kids and found all the wonderful (although stereotypical) commonalities between band members, band parents, and programs. I started writing poems in a journal. The journal became my first book, Band Nerds: Poetry From The 13th Chair Trombone Player. That is also how I met Dan Dougherty, my long time illustrator and friend. On Craig’s List... as one normally meets an illustrator (A story for another time).
I started illustrating when I was home sick one day and wrote I Feel..., a book about all the different emotions you can have. It was initially just a fun poem. But I decided to pick up my iPad and attempt to draw the faces. I never really tried to draw that much before but the iPad is so forgiving and “undo” is an incredibly powerful motivator. After that, I enjoyed it so much I started using pen and paper developing a style that many people describe as Ed Gorey meets Shel Silverstein meets Maurice Sendak meets Tim Burton. Which is a lot of people meeting, but I’ll take it as a wonderful compliment.
From everything I’ve seen online there seems to be a fantastic response to A THOUSAND NO’s. What has the response been like for you and what does it mean to see people resonating in so many places?
I tend to be more reserve about it than I think people expect. Mainly because of all the NO’s I’ve had that I always take a “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach. Or more accurately, “When the money is in the bank, then it’s real.”
But the best part of being an author is seeing if you can help people. And when people respond this way it’s impossible not to feel good. I get a lot of jokes when I go to shows because there are often tears in front of my table. “Oh DJ made another one cry.” But I see my role as an author to help connect emotions to people through stories. A publicist recently told me that all children’s authors write about the same things. Much like every piece of music could be reduced to the equivalent of Three Blind Mice (Where my music majors at?!), she wasn’t wrong. In that case it’s about developing the vehicle to the message, not just the message itself. That makes a lot of sense to me. So when someone reacts the positive ways you mentioned, it’s rewarding not only that you help another person find the words to describe something they couldn’t before, but also that I’ve done my job successfully. To not be so abstract, I had a mother cry in front of my table while reading one of my I Feel... books, I Feel... Different. She bought it but didn’t say anything. I got an email from her a few days later describing why she was crying. Here is that message:
“Hi, I don't know if you remember me but I stopped by your booth on Saturday and bought one of your books...I was walking by and spotted the I Feel...Different book and when I started flipping through it I started to tear up a bit. I felt like maybe I should explain. My son was diagnosed with Aspergers 3 years ago and all of his therapists told me not to tell him about the diagnosis. So for the past few years I have kept it from him. I recently decided it was in his best interest to know. So I have been struggling daily with some of the things he says about himself...Like "why can't I just be normal" and "why do I have to be this way". I think just flipping through your book brought it all to the surface and gave me the clever words that may help him feel better and understand that everyone is different in many ways. He goes back to school tomorrow and I can't wait to read this to him at bedtime tonight. And every night.”
I mean...ugh, I was a mess after reading that. If I’m being honest, I had a similar feeling to the tweet you sent about A Thousand NO’s. I’ve been there. I may always be there, I don’t know. It’s not everyday you get to make an impact like that. So it’s humbling.
I also say the real work starts AFTER you get signed to a contract so on a not-so-emotional level, I’m CRAZY STOKED for the positive reviews, responses, etc. Let’s sell some books!!!
This book has such a timeless, relevant message that anyone putting themselves out there needs to hear. What exhortation or encouragement can you offer our friends who are in the mucky, yucky thick of the query swamp or who are just starting out in the turbulent tundra of self pub?
Belief is stronger than passion. Here’s how I define that. Passion is the excitement and energy around something. I find it’s intoxicating but also can be unfocused and even overbearing. Often it’s hard to bring people along. Belief to me is applying wisdom to the future knowing the inevitable is going to happen. This allows me to have confidence (and often needed inner peace) even when things go wrong or as expected. Believe that it’s going to happen for you. You just get pick how.
I’m most excited about having a team that believes in not just my work, but also in the power of books to help where I have shortcomings. It’s so nice to have a group such as Sourcebooks have your back, tell you where something misses, and takes my stuff to the next level. I’ve always tried to reach as high as I could, they brought a ladder with them! Also, they’re my knight in shining armor when it comes to fighting off apostrophe trolls.
In terms of book releases, the I Feel... Children’s Series (ifeelbook.com) and the Band Nerds Book Series (the13thchair.com) are up next. We’re currently working on releasing another one of my acquired picture books for launch next year. So much more to come.
Alright, to wrap things up, complete the following sentence: “the world needs picture books because...”
...our attention spans are getting shorter but the right messages are more important than ever.
Thank you so much for sharing your unique journey with us, DJ! I am super pumped to keep seeing your work on the shelves!!!
And thank YOU for reading, kidlit fam! MMMmmm...this interview has me in my feels. That's what the kids are saying these days. *Cough* I'm old. In all seriousness, may you be encouraged to press on despite the no's which come your way--and may they shape your work and spirit, helping you grow and improve the stories you tell.
As a thank you for reading this interview and helping promote A THOUSAND NO's, DJ has a signed copy ready to go to one winner in our giveaway contest. Check out the details below!
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The deadline for this contest is Tuesday, September 22nd at 9AM CST
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About DJ Corchin
DJ Corchin is the author and illustrator of many award-winning children's books. He visits groups and schools all over the country discussing his stories and how people can find a path through their own creative universe.
He loves to connect people through humorous stories about communication, kindness, and social-emotional awareness. His books are known for being fun and thoughtful discussion starters for both kids and adults in this crazy, complex, human world.
Brian is a person who has been told no a lot. Usually by his almost 2-year-old son and frequently by his wife. Sometimes the universe tells Brian no. Sometimes gravity tells him no. Like when Brian tries to fly. Stupid gravity. Brian refuses to write a normal biography for any of these posts. Or maybe ever. Yepp. That's it. He's decided. He will never write a normal biography again. Not that biographies are beneath him. Most things are above him because he is short. He's just not that interesting. A "normal" biography for Brian would read something like, "Brian writes books. But sometimes he does not write books. Sometimes he does other things having nothing to do with books. Like when he hard-boils eggs for breakfast." At any rate, this biography has gone on for far too long and needs to end. But perhaps you're looking for something. A hidden emoji code perhaps? It's been awhile since Brian has offered one of those. So maybe that's what you're seeking. Maybe. Just maybe. Maybe the emoji code is a fall leaf. It's a fall leaf. Cause autumn. And pumpkin themed drinks. And boots and scarves. Also happiness.