I recently reviewed James Altucher’s “Choose Yourself” and in the spirit of Choose Yourself I emailed AJ Cosmo, an indie children’s book writer, a request for an email interview. That’s how the 21st century works, you want to work with someone or talk with them, go ahead and email them and see what happens.
I was lucky, AJ was nice enough to agree to answering my questions. Thanks so much AJ for taking the time to answer my questions.
1. When did you publish your first book?
My first book was published on the Amazon Kindle in December of 2011. It was called “Gordon’s Gravy.” It was about a man that kept asking for gravy for his turkey until he got it. I had tried to get published under different pen names for different types of books but, like most writers, was met with silent rejection. Amazon opened up an opportunity for writers such as myself to approach an out of reach market. I didn’t understand at the time just how difficult self-publishing could be.
2. You write in one of your books that you were a teacher, what did you teach?
Great question, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to clarify this. A. J. Cosmo is a pen name that is a collaboration between two different writers. We have both been teachers but Jeff, the J. in A. J., taught primary grades for nineteen years in Southern California (seven of which were special needs.) Chris, the C in Cosmo, has worked as a class assistant, an adult ed. teacher, and a Sunday school teacher. Chris, that’s me, has done all of the illustration and most of the writing while Jeff shaped the direction of the stories and edited the prose.
Back in January, we decided to stop collaborating and Jeff turned the pen name over to me. Though Jeff still makes sure of the books’ merit, I can no longer in good faith use the same bio, so I have since evolved it. Thus the odd divide in my work. However, as a writer and an illustrator, I hope to teach and entertain beyond the confines of a classroom.
3. How do you illustrate your books?
I illustrate using a grab bag of methods that I have acquired and developed over the years. I prefer to change the method each time I approach a new book and tailor the style to the type of story I’m telling. “My Pet Raptor” was done by painting directly into Photoshop using a Wacom drawing tablet. This made the drawings painterly. “Monsters A to Z” used a more complicated method where I first drew the pictures in pencil, scanned them, added the paper texture, and then colored in Photoshop. This gave the monster illustrations a handcrafted feel. “Hug Bat” was illustrated like a coloring book. I first drew in non-reflective blue pencil and then inked over top of it. I then scanned the images, which eliminated the blue lines, and color filled the white areas. This is similar to how animation is done.
None of these processes would be possible without Photoshop. It is a wonderful tool has enabled me to quickly illustrate new books.
4. What sort of promotion have you used?
None. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The books themselves are the promotion. I created them fast enough and had them all linked together. I put the ads for the other books at the end of the book (I do not put any of the acknowledgements or copyrights at the front of the book, only the end.) I enrolled the books in Kindle select so that I could put them up for free. And that was it. The new books promoted the old books and something of mine is available for free every week on Amazon. It’s a tremendous amount of work and ultimately unsustainable, but I feel that it is at least honest. If you want to read my work, it’s easy to get a taste of it.
Now that I have a foundation for my work, I have started to slow down and work on more interesting and complicated projects. In doing so, I also have to start traditional promotion. It is incredibly difficult, but I enjoy it immensely when I get to communicate with people who have read my work and find out about their lives and their families. I have an open policy on my twitter account @ajcosmokids that I will help out any artist or writer struggling with their work.
5. What was your most successful book and why?
“The Monster That Ate My Socks” hands down. That book has had a life of its own from the get go and I am one proud parent. I don’t have a firm grasp on why it connected with an audience, and I don’t think other artists fully understand their own appeal, but I have my theories. When I write I try to regress to an eight year old and create what excites that mindset. The idea for Sock Monster came from doing laundry, go figure, while “The Imagibles” came from reminiscing about my imaginary friends that I had when I was a child.
Children’s books need to appeal to children as well as adults. You need to engage them with a good story, and surprise them along the way. I try to deal with issues that children will face in their daily lives: bullying, getting in trouble for something you didn’t do, losing a friend, no one listening to you, etc. I was an outcast as a child, so I create work for those children.
I also want to give something to the parents too. I try to add little Easter eggs in my work just for them. They should be entertained too! It’s also a personal goal of mine to create stories that are a little more cerebral, a little more thought provoking, than what the age group normally gets. I want children to read and fall in love with literature, so I hope a small way to push them towards that.
6. Where do you get your ideas?
I don’t know . . . Ok, that’s not a good answer. I can’t site the source, though I am a man of faith, but I can say that often times the idea comes spontaneously when I’m doing something completely un-related. The next book I’m going to put out came to me while walking past the daycare at my gym. I saw a little boy that had a blanket draped around his back like a cape. That started a chain of thoughts that led to a workable idea and I extrapolated a story from there (I wrote a blog post about this technique.)
“The Truth Fairy” came from time I spent in the corporate world (and is also a play on words) while “An Alien in the City” came from being overwhelmed when I got lost in downtown Los Angeles. You can’t force ideas either; you can only create the space to allow them to bubble up. If you are stuck on a project or experiencing writers block I highly recommend taking yourself on an artists’ date (from the book The Artist’s Way by Cameron.) You expose yourself to other art and take your mind off of your work. It’s important to do this alone. The last time I got stuck, an exhibit of Marie Antoinette’s life recreated in doll form got me out of my funk.
I have a whole list of unused ideas stored on my phone and computer. I sometimes go back, dust one off, and make it work. Then again, most of them are unused for a reason. 😉
7. What writers inspire you?
I adore Dr. Seuss, Mo Willems, and Shel Silverstein the most. Dr. Seuss did an incredible job of encouraging readers and creating a fanciful world and I don’t think anyone will ever recapture what he accomplished. Willems is adorable and his books read like a great joke that you would tell at a party. I love his simple writing style. I admire Mr. Silverstein for dealing with heavy life issues in whimsical ways. I don’t think anyone else got so many children to think so deeply about typically adult topics.
Whenever I’m out and about, be it in a bookstore or a Laundromat, if there happen to be children’s books I will grab a few and read them. I’m always surprised at the variety of them and I think the form still has a lot of room for growth and experimentation.
8. What do you tell someone who is interested in self-publishing?
Make the best work you possibly can. Create something that would appeal to you. Make it professional in every aspect. Don’t skimp on effort or time but don’t obsess over it either (nothing is perfect.) You are a one-person publishing house and you need to perform every aspect from cover creation to editing to promotion. You can of course hire any of these aspects out and I would recommend doing so if you lack any of the appropriate skills. The gatekeepers may have changed, but the public is as demanding as ever.
Lastly, don’t give up. Nothing is instant in life, nothing worthwhile at least. I tend to look at it like farming. You plant the seeds, tend the soil, water the ground, and then, when it seems like nothing has happened for a long, long time, suddenly something starts to grow. And as long as you keep working, waiting, and trying, you will some day get your harvest.
Check out A. J. Cosmo’s latest book “ The Monster That Ate My Socks 2” on Kindle!
Thanks to AJ for answering my questions! Now go check out his work.