Why We Created a Personalized Children’s Book Company

Personalized children's book company

Why did we create a personalized children’s book company? Here’s our story.

In 2005, my wife and I were expecting our first child. On a whim, I wrote and illustrated several crude storybooks. I loved the idea of giving our future kids one-of-a-kind gifts.

My name is spelled Philip with one L. And as a kid, I always hated being unable to find my name on the personalized key-chains at the gas station. As we narrowed in on a couple boys and girls names, I realized our child was going to be even less likely than I had been to find their own personalized keychain.

So I set out to make a book that would solve that problem. My first attempts were… not good. But I’ve always had a stubborn streak.

At the time, I remember calling that first book a “weekend project”. But as the weekend stretched into weeks, an idea for a personalized book started to take shape.

I tinkered with the first draft for six months. At the time I was just writing for my family – I didn’t think anybody else would be interested.

That humble start eventually led to the manuscript for Following Featherbottom.

I emailed an early draft to my sister. At 6:00 AM the next morning, she called to tell me the story had made her cry. I thought, “she’s my sister…she has to say that.”

But it convinced me to show a few more close friends. And their reactions persuaded me to start looking for illustrators.

Starting Up Our Personalized Children’s Book Company

I was clueless — totally ignorant — about the “right way” to publish a book. So I went on a Google odyssey for illustrators. I talked to artists in the UK and Australia.

Late one night, a few months into the search, I ran into Brad Sneed‘s work. Brad’s an award-winning artist who has illustrated nearly 30 picture books. His art was amazing. And Google told me we lived in the same city. So I emailed him.

And he politely declined — which is exactly what any good picture-book artist is supposed to do. In the picture book world, publishers — not authors — are supposed to match an artist with a book.

But for whatever reason, the idea nagged at Brad. Eventually he emailed us back, we met for breakfast (as it turned out, we lived in the same neighborhood!) and over eggs and orange juice we shook hands and agreed to partner.

With that handshake, Brad became a cofounder and we’ve now collaborated with him on all four of our personalized books and a number of other creative projects.

We had a story and we had illustrations, but how were we going to make it all work?

Enter Ken Wiebke. Ken and I were working together at the time and I’d seen his technical skill rescuing a few particularly nasty projects. Although we’ve worked really hard to make the technology virtually invisible, there’s a ton of technology under the hood. A lunch, a handshake and we were off to the races… kinda.

It took us a couple years to launch that first book and we’ve averaged another book about every couple years since.

Our First Hire

For the first few years I did my best trying to juggle a full-time job, a full-time family and “do” MarbleSpark on the side.  And MarbleSpark grew, despite being a barely nights-and-weekends project for us.

I knew we needed help. But it couldn’t be just anyone. It took me a few years but I finally recruited the most talented person I knew (that had also proven she could put up with me): my wife Stacey Haussler.

After a lot of thought and prayer, Stacey quit her job in banking and jumped into the deep end.

Why the Name MarbleSpark?

The name MarbleSpark came in a flash during a late-night brainstorming session.

We were searching for a name that could speak to our mission of making kids feel as special as they really are. Marble signifies your brain or noggin’ — as in “Have you lost your marbles?”.  And Spark means ignition, explosion, and combustion.

Together, MarbleSpark means “imaginations ignited” or “mind blown.”  So in many ways, it’s not just our name — it’s a mission.

What’s The Creative Process to Create a Personalized Children’s Book?

Like all creative efforts, it’s messy. It’s not a linear process where you move neatly from step A to Z. I could fill pages but I’ll try to keep this short: It’s like solving a 1,000 piece puzzle where all the pieces are the same exact color.

It usually starts with a really rough concept — it’s not even an “idea” at this stage.

Sometimes — like with Every Hero Needs a Sidekick — a concept comes from noticing a need or opportunity like “big brother / big sister book” from my own experience raising children.

Then I’m constantly on the lookout for ideas to activate those concepts. I keep a notebook of ideas; when I think of something or see something or hear something that sparks an idea, I’ll capture it. If I fall in love with an idea, then I try to wrestle the idea into a manuscript.

I write in the mornings or late at night when the kids are sleeping. I draft. I get stuck. I start over.

Once I get a good working draft, I’ll show it to Brad, the illustrator, and others for feedback. Eventually it’s solid enough that Brad can take over. He creates a mockup with pencil sketches.

We go through several revisions.

Once the sketches start to gel, he’ll move to paint (or whatever medium he’s working in for this book). Eventually we get the art and text finalized and now we’ve got to train our technology to make the book.

We build and test the technology. Sometimes it’s smooth. Sometimes we get stuck and go back 5 steps.

I think people mistake creativity as divine inspiration… that the creative process is easy for some people. “Well, that’s easy for you because you’re creative.”

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Creativity is often a grind. For us, creativity isn’t measured in weeks or months. A book takes years. Our first book took us 4 years. We’re averaging closer to 1 or 2 years now.  But Every Hero Needs a Sidekick took us closer to 3 years.

It’s our first ever personalized children’s book to actually feature an image of the child on every spread of the book. This turned out to be…. haaaaaaaaard.

After finishing the manuscript a couple years ago, we spent the past two years conquering the artistic and technical challenges. To give you a sense of the scale of this challenge, with 4 skin tones, 6 hair colors and 10 hair-styles, Brad created 240 versions of every single illustration in this book.

What’s next for MarbleSpark?

We are dreamers and do-gooders. Ever since the day we launched MarbleSpark, we’ve been working on something we call Project OpenBook.  The plan looked something like this:

  • 1. Make you the most magical, mindblowing personalized books on the planet.
  • 2. Give books to kids in need.
  • 3. Repeat.

So for the past seven years, we’ve been working on a community-sourced children’s book. Our first book is a children’s poetry collection called “The Yeti In My Freezer” and it is 99% done!  

We’re putting the final touches on the book and hope to give away our first copies in Q2 of 2017.  If this first experiment works out, we hope to create a collection of age-appropriate books that we can donate to kids in need every time we sell a book, book-for-book.

You can follow our journey at: www.marblespark.com/blog/project-openbook

Creating a personalized children’s book company has been quite the ride. Like a rollercoaster it has had it’s highs and lows. But it’s a ride I’m thankful to be on.

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