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Inner Flower Child Books and LeVar Burton Team Up for COVID-19 Relief

Thursday, June 11, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Christopher Locke
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LeVar Burton reads, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, the book he co-authored with the founders of Inner Flower Child Books, during a livestream event (top left). At the bottom right, Inner Flower Child Books founders (Courtenay Fletcher pictured far left and Susan Bernardo pictured second in from the right) attend a Reading Rainbow assembly with their children and LeVar in Encino, California.

The COVID-19 health crisis has had an immense emotional toll on billions of people around the world. This has inspired many people to find ways to help ease the suffering with gestures grand and small. Inner Flower Child Books co-founders Susan Bernardo and Courtenay Fletcher and LeVar Burton came up with multiple ways to help people through these difficult times: LeVar did a livestream reading of The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm (that he co-authored with Susan, and that Courtenay illustrated) and Inner Flower Child Books made this book and others available for free downloads.

Below, Courtenay explains how all these plans came together, and she gives tips for other independent publishers who are interested in livestreaming readings of their own books.

IBPA: On April 6 at 9am, LeVar Burton did a livestream reading of the book you collaborated on with him, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm (click here to watch the livestream video). How did this event come to be?

Courtenay Fletcher (CF): When the pandemic hit, LeVar, like many of us, found himself confined at home with time on his hands since his public speaking engagements and television productions were all put on hold. The Rhino book was originally published by LeVar’s former company, RRKidz, Inc, in 2014, but last year, the rights to the book reverted to the three of us, and we had just begun the process of updating the book for re-launch. It occurred to all of us that The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm—a book specifically created to be a resource for families coping with traumatic experiences—was a wonderful resource for the “storm” that we all find ourselves in today. We decided that in addition to the livestreaming, we would make the e-book available for free during the shutdown.

Of course, LeVar is an icon in the world of children’s literature—as the host of PBS’ Reading Rainbow, he introduced kids to wonderful books for 26 years! He has done many public readings of the Rhino book in the past, including once with former First Lady Michelle Obama to kids at a military base in 2016. LeVar also produces and hosts a podcast for adults called “LeVar Burton Reads.” It was a very natural fit for him to expand into doing livestream storytimes, and a way he could use his gifts as a storyteller to help others during this tough time.

IBPA: How did the livestream go?

CF: LeVar has actually done multiple livestreams since the pandemic began! He first did a reading of The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm as a Facebook live event through on March 31st. There were some technical difficulties getting the livestream hooked in to Blavity from his home, but once it started rolling, about 20 minutes late, it was a big success with over 3,700 shares and 159,000 views.

LeVar also announced on Twitter that he wanted to do additional storytimes for people staying at home—and was looking for material that was in the public domain, or he could get copyright permission to read aloud. His plea garnered a ton of press, and an insanely enthusiastic response from publishers, fans and hundreds of authors—even blockbuster authors like Neil Gaiman and Jason Reynolds offered LeVar the rights to read any of their work aloud! Ultimately, LeVar decided to set up three different storytimes a week via his Twitter livestream for about a month, geared to children, young adults, and adults.

LeVar’s first Twitter livestream reading of The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm happened on Monday, April 6th, along with Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman—thousands of people logged in to watch it live, and then it was shared widely via Periscope and hit over 1 million views by the end of the day! The same thing happened on two subsequent Monday readings, when he would read first a favorite picture book by another author, and then The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm. Since March, between the four livestream readings, there have been a cumulative 4+ million views of the book. We are so glad that THIS went viral, during this crazy time—children really need to hear the book’s positive message that there are helpers all around them, and we are going to weather this storm together.

IBPA: Have you noticed an uptick in sales for the book since the livestream occurred?

CF: Believe it or not, this was not a commercial decision—we did it out of love and a desire to help! The book is not currently available in print at the moment. We will be re-releasing it later this year. Courtenay was able to get the e-book updated and converted at lightning speed, however, and we chose to make it available as a free download through Levar’s website. The goal was really to help families by providing this as a free resource.

IBPA: Do you have any tips for other independent publishers thinking about doing readings of their books online (livestream or other)?

CF: Doing an online reading can be a lot of fun and it’s a great way for people to get to know you and your book(s). A livestream can be a bit scary in the beginning, but if you do some prep work, you’ll feel more relaxed and make it a better experience for you and your audience. Here are a few tips:

  1. Figure out your platform. There are multiple platforms that you can use, like YouTube Live, Facebook Live, Twitter, Instagram Live, Periscope, and LinkedIn Live. Check them out and see what will work best for you.

  2. Promote the reading a week in advance on your various social media accounts and as you get closer, post exciting reminders revealing something new you’ll be sharing or giving away… a free ebook, a tip, news about a new book, etc.

  3. Schedule the reading at a time when your audience will be available to watch it. Are they at work, at dinner, in bed?

  4. Find a good place in your house to read like a comfy chair in a nook and where you can eliminate distractions, like barking dogs or other household noises. It’ll also have to be a place that you can easily set up your recording device… laptop, tablet, or phone. If you have a mic that you can plug into your device, it will make the sound even better.

  5. Set your stage. Make sure you’re not backlit with a bright window behind you. Also, is there enough light so people will be able to see you? Check the screen for items that will be distracting and adjust pillows, vases, pictures, etc. I’d also recommend that if you do use your phone, turn it so that the video is landscape vs. portrait.

  6. Interact with your audience. During a livestream, you’ll be able to see people’s comments and you can say hi and welcome them at the beginning and answer questions that may pop up at the end. That’s a great way of acknowledging your fans.

  7. Lastly, I’d recommend keeping it short, about 15 minutes. Leave them wanting more!

If a live reading is not your cup of tea, you can always pre-record your video and pop it up on your YouTube channel or on Facebook.

IBPA: You are also giving away free ebooks of this book and some of your other books. What made you decide to do that?

CF: If we could give books away all day every day, we would (but that’s not a very effective business model ;)! Our books are intended to inspire and encourage children going through challenging times, and we love to know that the books are serving families in that way. By giving the e-books away for free, we make it possible for anyone who needs the material to access it. It doesn’t result in that much of a revenue loss for us, because e-books typically account for a small percentage of our overall sales. Ultimately, we’d like to get better at marketing our e-books and getting them out to libraries, etc.

Who knows? Maybe once people read the free e-books, they will be inspired to purchase the paperback or hardcover edition for themselves or as a gift for someone they love.

IBPA: COVID-19 has taken over the news, so it’s difficult for indie publishers to get the word out about their books. Do you have any marketing tips for independent publishers who are trying to get the word out about their books right now?

CF: We still are having decent results with our Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) keyword ads, and we’ve been fortunate that our books resonate with families coping with separation and trauma—and teachers, too! We sold 1,900 copies of Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs to a company that sells subscription book crates to kindergarten teachers—because it was such a great fit for teachers to read to kids learning online at home. Besides that, we’ve mostly been using the time to decompress, to brainstorm ways to pivot our business and to dream up future books. We’re also working on launching our own e-commerce platform—we’ve just transferred our book inventory to a big fulfillment center that can integrate a shopping cart, and we’re working with someone who develops merchandise/products to complement our books.

IBPA: Can you share any general advice about how an independent publisher can weather the impact of the coronavirus health crisis on their business?

CF: Focus on your mental well-being and physical health first! Don’t beat yourself up if your sales slide or you can’t get that next book out as soon as you’d hoped. Get sunshine; rest and exercise; turn on some music that makes you happy; and remember you are never alone. We are all in this together. If you’re feeling really blue or traumatized, read The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm. Or you can listen to LeVar’s soothing voice as he reads it to you (he reads two stories on this livestream!)

IBPA: Another important issue that has been prominent internationally is the epidemic of racist violence against Black people, about which IBPA released this statement. Does the "storm" of The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm also resonate for children given the outpouring of grief and protests against the ongoing hate and violence against Black people?

CF: Systemic racism with its bitter legacy of poverty and violence truly has been a storm of epic proportions in this country. We all have a responsibility to be the “helpers” children need, to dismantle racism, and build a new world based on kindness and justice for all. While researching the book, we were profoundly inspired by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ powerful TED talk on childhood trauma and the lifelong public health impact of ACES (adverse childhood experiences). In 2019, Dr. Burke Harris was appointed the first-ever Surgeon General for the State of California!

IBPA: How has it been beneficial to you to be a member of Independent Book Publishers Association?

CF: IBPA has been a huge asset to us as indie publishers! First, there are the amazing informational resources on every aspect of publishing—through conferences, online webinars, the helpful staff, the archives, and your wonderful IBPA Independent magazine. Beyond that, IBPA has a wealth of marketing opportunities that help level the playing field so we can compete with traditional publishers. We love the IBPA NetGalley program, which helped us gather advance reviews and create buzz before our books were even out. We’ve also participated in a few Library Market eBlasts, and noticed an uptick in our wholesale orders (IBPA even has benefits that helped us become vendors with Baker & Taylor and IngramSpark!)

An assortment of books published by Inner Flower Child Books pictured with thecompany's co-founders

We were very excited to win the IBPA Benjamin Franklin SILVER award for our 2019 picture book, The Artist Who Loved Cats: The Inspiring tale of Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen in the “Children’s Picture Book (4-7 Years)” category [click here to see Courtenay and Susan’s fun acceptance speech]. We were so impressed at the amazing “Shelter-In-Place” IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards online ceremonies that IBPA’s staff pulled together despite a pandemic—they showed true creativity and dedication!

IBPA: Do you have any recent books you'd like to mention?

CF: Our most recent titles are The Artist Who Loved Cats and Besos de sol, abrazos de luna which is a bilingual Spanish-English edition of our first book, Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs.

IBPA: Thank you, Courtenay, for sharing your insights and for providing assistance to people during these difficult times!

Click here to learn more about Inner Flower Child Books!

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