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March 27, 2015
By Claire Kirch
After self-publishing his own picture book, David FitzSimmons resigned from his day job to make books full-time.

David FitzSimmons, an English professor and professional photographer who, almost on a whim, self-published the first of two picture books and is preparing to release a third one in April, has been so successful that he has resigned from his day job. He left his position in the English department at Ashland University, found a distributor, and is expanding to publish nature-themed picture books by more authors under his new publishing company, Wild Iris Publishing, based in Bellville, Ohio.

FitzSimmons’s third picture book, Curious Critters Marine, will be released on Earth Day (April 22, $19.95) with a 10,000-copy print run. In September, Curious Critters Ohio and Curious Critters Michigan, two board books that will launch the Wild Iris series of regional animal titles, will publish 5,000-copy print runs. 

“I’m moving forward. I won’t just be self-publishing my own work,” FitzSimmons said, disclosing that a spring 2016 Wild Iris release will be Salamander Dance, written by him and illustrated by naturalist and painter Michael DiGeorgio, a book that exploring the life cycles of vernal pools. FitzSimmons has also reached a verbal agreement to publish a children’s book by “a world-renowned nature photographer,” but would not disclose further details. 

“The goal is to keep increasing titles,” he says of his future plans as publisher. FitzSimmons is assisted by subcontractors, he explains, including editors and designers who work with Chronicle Books and Red Wheel/Weiser. “I try to make books that are indistinguishable from those produced by the Big Six.”

From Photographer to Publisher

Five years ago, David FitzSimmons was commissioned by the Sigma Corporation to shoot photos of animals for an advertising campaign undertaken by the high-end camera manufacturer. “They were to be photos taken in a Richard Avedon style, the subjects against a stark white background,” FitzSimmons explained, “Only, instead of people, there would be animals.” While exhibiting the images at the Telluride Photo Festival in Colorado, a number of fellow photographers suggested to FitzSimmons that he might want to consider producing a picture book for children.

Curious Critters was self-published in hardcover format in November 2011 with a 5,000-copy print run. It sold out in four months, primarily to libraries, prompting FitzSimmons to order a second, 10,000-copy print run that also sold primarily to libraries. Curious Critters received immediate critical acclaim: it received the 2012 IBPA Bill Fisher Award for Best First Book, a 2011 Silver Moonbeam Children’s Book Award  in the nonfiction children’s picture book category, and was a 2012 Skipping Stones Honor Award recipient in the nature and picture books category. Curious Critters was also a 2011 Foreword Reviews Book of the Year finalist in the juvenile nonfiction category. 

“Nobody had done something like this before for young readers,” he noted of Curious Critters and its sequel, Curious Critters Volume Two (Feb. 2014). In the Curious Critters books, the photographs on each page or, in some cases, in each spread, are accompanied by simple text, narrated in the animal’s voice. Many of the nonfiction titles picked selected for Common Core are “more dry,” FitzSimmons says, speculating that teachers and librarians are attracted to Curious Critters because they are “looking for nonfiction titles that are narrative-driven and visually engaging.” 

"I try to make books that are indistinguishable from those produced by the Big Six."
Since Scholastic published two paperback editions of Curious Critters, one for the book fair market, the other for the book clubs. Sales have spiked: approximately 110,000 copies total of the three editions have sold to date, of which almost 100,000 are Scholastic’s two paper editions.

While approximately 80% of that total to date has been to schools and libraries, FitzSimmons notes, since IPG began distribution in October, “there’s an uptick now to the trade” of Wild Iris’s hardcover edition. Curious Critters Volume Two, which has a 10,000-copy first printing, has sold 6,000 copies to date. It’s a figure, FitzSimmons says, that is “deceptively low” due to various unforeseen setbacks involving the book, such as shipping delays caused by a typhoon off of China’s coast, and the company’s website being hacked, as well as Wild Iris switching distributors last year.

Wild Iris is still bedeviled with availability issues having to do with the switch in distributorship from Midpoint to IPG: while Curious Critters Marine is available through Ingram, Curious Critters and Curious Critters Volume Two will not be available through Ingram until April 1. Due to Midpoint being an IPS client, Ingram cannot order those two titles until Midpoint’s contractual return period has ended. Fortunately for Wild Iris, all of the titles are available to the trade from IPG, as well as from all of the other wholesalers, such as Baker & Taylor and Partners.

Despite the obstacles that Wild Iris has faced in making its list known and available to the trade, the press and its releases have already received plaudits from indie booksellers, including Dave Richardson, book buyer at Blue Marble Books in Ft. Thomas, Ky. Richardson describes the books as “stunning presentations.” In fact, in more than a decade as book buyer at Blue Marble, he said he has bought books only from two self-publishers, and Curious Critters was the first.

Cynthia Compton, the owner of 4Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Ind., checked out Wild Iris’s publications “on the strength of [Richardson’s] recommendation.”  She too was blown away, declaring, “They’re just visually stunning.”

Compton explains that her “measure of a great picture book” is one that causes her to think, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that!” while reading it. “This is the kind of book in which the [adult] reader and the child being read too will both gain something from the experience,” she noted, adding that, in her store, the book has also found a secondary market: adult customers interested in photography.

“The photography is remarkable,” Compton said, “It’s just a beautifully done professional package of outstanding quality. It sells well and displays beautifully.”