Today, December 15th, 2016, marks the publication of the first book of my History’s Mysteries ESL English puzzle adventure book series. The book has been published by Key Publications, a major publisher in Seoul with a whopping command of ESL textbook market share in the country. It’s a time travel adventure story targeted towards middle school ESL learners.
So, how did I manage to get my series published in South Korea? Here’s the story in 5 parts.
PART ONE: HOW IT ALL BEGAN —
For a few years I created an managed my own organization from Daegu called Stompy Ruffers Cultural Fusion. Originally meant to be a business selling Korean-American fusion patbingsu in the summer time, the organization morphed into any and every creative project I found myself doing while working as a public school elementary teacher for 5 years.
In the summer time, I pushed selling my bingsu at festivals and events, however, once fall arrived and the shave ice season wrapped up, I needed to concentrate my creative efforts elsewhere. So, I started a Stompy Ruffers Youtube channel and began crafting short films and various Korean-American culture-related videos. Although the other elements of Stompy are mostly non-existent now, I do still enjoy shooting and editing for the Youtube channel.
Well, when the following spring would roll around, I wanted to create a kick-off event for the up-coming bingsu season. I decided to take inspiration from David Blaine’s mind-bendingly fun and engaging 2002 Mysterious Stranger $100,000 Treasure Hunt. Having participated in the hunt myself (yes, my buddy and I took a road trip to Ft. Bragg, California, in February 2004, but no treasure!) I was bent on creating a similar style hunt combining Korean and English for the Daegu community. The result was the 2014 Stompy Ruffers Great Daegu Treasure Hunt.
Having had such a fun time doing the hunt in Daegu, I scaled everything up and put up 500,000 KRW of my own cash to launch the 2015 Great Seoul Treasure Hunt, a wonderfully fun event to plan, design, and execute to the wonderful citizens of Seoul.
PART TWO: THE PITCH —
Coming off a victory with that (design and execution all went off without a hitch), I started to think about the next big idea. I’ve enjoyed a fun hobby of creative writing since I was in middle school and during my twenties had fashioned a dream of becoming a full-time novelist one day. Frustrated with the lack of energy I had seen in the ESL book market in Korea, I thought it might be nice to combine my interactive English puzzle treasure hunt with ESL content and create an adventure story where our actual readers would have to solve fun puzzles to help the characters in the book. It felt like Choose Your Own Adventure for the modern ESL market! It seemed like such a brilliant idea!
So, I hired a very talented children’s book author and illustrator to create a few pieces of concept art which I would use in a proposal to pitch my idea into the publishing world in Korea. I was aiming to pitch the idea at the 2015 Seoul International Book Fair in the fall of 2015. Here’s some of the concept art that was created:
The original idea was called Treasure Bound and was meant to be an ESL treasure hunt book, where readers would solve a series of puzzles which would lead to the very real location of a missing diamond (most likely using just a plastic place-holder) which would be redeemed with the publisher for a real cash prize.
At the fair, my then-girlfriend, Hyerin, and I were inundated with tons of publishers and agents representing their items at the fair. We navigated to the booths which looked like they published English content. Hyerin would kick into her sales pitch mode while offering over a proposal I had drafted together in Korean and printed out on heavy stock paper. The proposal had the concept art on one side and on the reverse there was a brief summary of the book’s idea, then the treasure hunt concept, and finally a bit about my qualifications of having successfully created a live treasure hunt event in Seoul.
As we wandered about, we were met with tepid interest. It was starting to look like cold-pitching the idea wasn’t going to work. We had two more booths to approach.
We met with Mr. Kim, the CEO of Key Publications after speaking briefly to his son. Mr. Kim’s eyes immediately lit up upon hearing our proposal. He mentioned that they had been looking to create some kind of new, fun ESL project. He invited us to return the following day to sit down and discuss the idea further.
Eager, Hyerin and I returned the following morning to meet with Mr. Kim at the Key Publications booth in COEX. He immediately expressed great interest in the project and event started jotting down rough contract terms, royalty percentages, and info on how they structured their print runs. Excited at having captured his interest, we stood and shook his hand. We snapped a picture along with his son. As we were walking away, Hyerin kept saying: “Oh my god! I think we just sold a book! I can’t believe it!” It was such a thrilling moment.
PART THREE: A NEW CONCEPT —
Over the course of the next few months, I was put into contact with my editor and project manager at Key Publications. I went to Seoul to meet with her in a cafe and discuss the project more. She said that Key Publications was not interested in creating a treasure hunt book because they make most of their revenue from reprints and after the treasure was found, the book would lose its value (at least in one aspect). She asked me to brainstorm some new ideas.
In January, I created a new concept and wrote a sample book. I sent it in with a few pages’ layout in photoshop so my editor could get a visual of what I had been thinking. She responded by saying that the text was too high-level. She asked if I could write in simpler language. She says jump. I say “how high?” Of course, I could!
I put together another concept for the story and characters and re-submitted my proposal. Now, the story wasn’t about a missing diamond, but about the same group of four kids (the main characters had never changed this whole time) who are bookworms and find a magic book which takes them back in time to meet a famous person in history. Through a series of fun English puzzles, they (and our readers) must complete the puzzles to solve the “history of mystery”. She responded favorably and gave me the green light to work on the project, writing: “I couldn’t wait til I could write to you properly with my laptop at the office, because I wanted to let you know that the project you’ve conceived seems to be able to take off as a full-fledged publishing project.”
We were now in March, 2016, and I had plans to spend a week solo in Jeju Island. I took this opportunity to focus on writing the story. Instead of writing on my laptop, I decided it might be best to write the story by hand. This would force me to slow down my writing and concentrate on making simple sentences which would work best for our readers.
Once completing the text and having self-edited it, I sent it in to my editor with a bit of nervous hesitation. When submitting, I took the time to create a stronger visual conception of the ideal look and feel so that my editor could best understand the angle I had imagined. Here’s a sample of my rough concept for the first page followed by the actual final version.
To my surprise, she responded on March 25th that Mr. Kim had decided to offer me a publishing contract! She asked me my terms so that we could begin contract negotiations.
PART FOUR: THE CONTRACT —
In April 2016, I negotiated my contract terms with Key Publications. I won’t reveal details but will mention a few things here. The amount of the book advance (amount paid upon signing the contract) was not important to me. What was more important was the royalty rate (the percentage I would get of each book sold). After some back-and-forth, my editor and I came to an agreement. I would get X% for each copy sold. Should book sales pass a certain amount, then I would get a larger royalty, Y% for all future copies sold during the length of the 10-year contract.
Being my first time negotiating creative rights in Korea, I did some research and read some harrowing stories of writers and artists who had been taken advantage of by their publishers. There’s the case of a South Korean author who penned a children’s book called Cloud Bread, but didn’t negotiate the rights properly and the publisher ended up licensing out the characters and third party rights without compensation to the author. Likewise, Korea’s popular messaging app, Kakao Talk, had a similar issue with the character artist not negotiating these rights properly and now receives no compensation for all the commercialized products created from his/her original designs.
Looking to avoid this, I made sure my editor knew that I requested retaining a percentage of these third party rights. Of course, there’s no way to know now if the series would be popular, but should (for example) a stationery company want to create notebooks and erasers featuring my characters, they will have to buy the rights jointly between me and the publisher.
To ensure this, I did hire an English-speaking Korean lawyer to review my final contract. He made some recommendations about a few spots to give clarification. All of his recommendations were met in kind by the publisher and they agreed to all of his suggestions.
Finally, the contract was signed and book production could actually now begin.
PART FIVE: PRODUCTION —
Production on the book began immediately. My editor searched for and found a very talented illustrator name Jung Young Ha. In particular, my editor was attracted to a part of her portfolio containing some playing cards she had designed for a client:
Intrigued with the simple color scheme and design, I also approved of the kid-friendly feel of Miss Ha’s work. My editor then set out to find a book designer. After a hiccup with the first designing firm, we settled on the wonderfully professional folks at Mim & Ponytail based in Seoul.
Throughout the summer of 2016, we went back and forth working on the book’s layout and design. It was very exciting to see the project slowly come together. I think my editor and I shared over 500 emails on this project.
As we got closer to completion, it was time to get the audio book version produced. My editor again made a tremendous effort to find a studio who could supply voice actors with the right tone and feel that we had been looking for, to bring these four wonderful characters to life. All audio samples and files were sent to me for approval and I was pleased to know that my editor and I shared similar opinions as we rejected some candidates and approved others.
As fall approached, my editor gave me the green light to start working on History’s Mysteries Book 2, anticipating success with the first volume. I won’t detail it too much here, but I did my research and wrote the book over a period of five weeks from mid-September to late October, 2016, while visiting friends and family in the United States.
Finally, December 2016 came and the book was released successfully. Anticipating a potential international audience, Key Publications printed a “local” edition (Korean written on the inside cover flaps) and an “international” edition (English on the inside cover flaps). Time will tell how well the first book in this charming series does. I hope it’s successful enough to go forward with the already-completed second book.
I really hope this book series sparks an interest in young ESL learners worldwide. I would have loved to have read this kind of book when I was a high school student learning German, my first foreign language. I hope that this contribution will be well-received and used as an engaging educational tool for learners of English.
History’s Mysteries Book One: The Missing Years of Gutenberg may be purchased online here or at any local major book retailer.