The first time I stumbled upon a Science of Parenthood cartoon while scrolling through my Facebook feed, I totally chortled. Then, I went into a deep, dark rabbit hole looking for more. Must. have. moooooore.
These ladies get it.
They know firsthand the absurdity that goes along with motherhood and they give us the power to laugh our asses off at it instead of dissolving into a puddle of tears and self pity.
I was so excited to hear they were coming out with a book and even more excited to get the chance to interview them and pick their brains about how they got started, their move into hybrid publishing, the quest for balance, and so much more.
Tell us a bit about Science of Parenthood. When did you start it? What inspired you to get it going? How did you guys team up?
Norine Dworkin-McDaniel: Jessica and I have been friends for more than 10 years now. She was at my wedding. I was at her baby shower. We met when we were both in Vegas, working for the same media company—Jessica was creative director at Vegas.com and I was a contributing writer for Las Vegas Life magazine. We started talking at a friend’s holiday party and instantly connected. Then our science-geek husbands bonded—we say they were separated at birth—and now our sons are pals.
Jessica Ziegler: We both were first-time moms at the time and were just getting through each day, so we hadn’t been in close contact after we both moved out of Vegas. But that’s the thing about good friends, it doesn’t matter how long it’s been, you can pick right up where you left off and start an entire business in an afternoon. Okay, maybe that last part isn’t that common.
Norine: Ha! If I’d stopped to think about how UNcommon that is, I might not have asked Jessica to team up with me to do a gift book. That’s how it began. I’d started posting these science-y parenting “observations” on Facebook after my second grader came home talking about Newton’s laws of force and motion. You know the one: “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by a force.” As my son explained it over dinner, it struck me that Newton’s law was remarkably similar to my kid with video games. So I posted Newton’s First Law of Parenting: A child at rest will remain at rest until you need your iPad back. Then I came up with Sleep Geometry Theorem: A child will always sleep perpendicular to any adult laying down next to them. The observations were fun to write and were getting good response on Facebook. I thought they’d be great in a gift book if they had some images to go with them. Jessica had already designed my professional writer website, so I called her to see if she’d like to work together on this project.
Jessica: She called on New Year’s Eve 2012 with the idea for the book. I had seen what she had been posting on Facebook and could instantly see how some sort of cartoon would make them even better. I’m not going to lie, I was definitely wary at first. It sounded like a lot of work. I spent the first half of the conversation trying to figure out how to gently say NO WAY. I guess I never figured it out! But honestly, I really could see how these could be more than just a single gift book. It could be a website… and a Facebook page… and Twitter… and ALL THE THINGS. Before we got off the phone, we had secured the domain name, Facebook page and Twitter handle. About three weeks later, we launched the website.
Norine: Whew! I’m incredibly lucky Jessica said Yes. Because I did not have a Plan B if she’d said No! But that’s how Science of Parenthood started—with a book idea that became an illustrated blog, and nearly three years and a few hundred cartoons later, is now being published as a book. One reviewer compared it to a funny textbook because the book has four sections—biology, chemistry, physics and math. But blog or book, our “take” on parenting is the same. We twist real math and science concepts around to “explain” the frustrations and humiliations that come with everyday parenting. Stuff like Why are broken cookies “ruined?” Why can’t we open a cheese-stick wrapper without precipitating a meltdown? How can a child who barely has the coordination to toddle around a room, consistently nail you with pee, poop, snot and vomit? And perhaps most importantly, How many shots does it take to get through an episode of Cailou?
Can you tell us a little bit about the hybrid publishing model and why you chose to go with it?
Norine: Our choice of hybrid publishing is one of those happy accidents. We certainly planned to go the traditional publishing route. We’d been doing the blog thing for about two months when an agent approached us about turning the blog into a book. Naturally, we were over the moon! That was our goal and I took it as one of those “meant to be” things that everything was falling into place so easily. We quickly put together a book proposal and it went… nowhere. Our agent sent it to every publishing house in New York and no one wanted it. That was probably partly because we were two months old and had no online audience to speak of. And we probably hadn’t articulated our book concept very well because, honestly, we were still figuring it out ourselves.
It was an enormous letdown. But as it turned out, it was also the best thing that could have happened to us. Because it gave us time—time to really develop our content and our voice and find our audience. Unfortunately, as a concept, Science of Parenthood was DOA in New York publishing. Our agent had done such a thorough job of sending our proposal around, no book editor was going to look at it again, even if it was new and improved. So we turned to She Writes Press. The publisher, Brooke Warner, had been my writing coach on another project, and she’d watched us develop Science of Parenthood from the beginning. As a mom with a toddler, she thought our book was very funny. And very marketable.
So while we backed into hybrid publishing, working with She Writes Press really gave us just about everything we wanted. We had far more creative control over the book than we would have had we gone with one of the big five New York houses. And for a couple of obsessive perfectionists, that was definitely a plus! Science of Parenthood has a very specific look and voice, and with She Writes Press, Jessica and I had final say on everything. And I’m talking about our cover, the font and point size for our text, even our cover price. We also retain our copyright, ebook rights and merchandising rights, which traditional publishers typically keep. Since we already have a product line, keeping our merch rights was very important to us.
The trade-off is that we didn’t get was an advance, which you typically get with traditional publishing. We paid She Writes Press to produce our books. So if we were fronting the money, why didn’t we just self-publish like we did with our other books, The Big Book of Parenting Tweets and The Bigger Book of Parenting Tweets? Store access. It can be very hard, impossible even, to get into bookstores and big box stores as a self-published author. Publishing with She Writes Press, we got a sales team from Ingram Publisher Services, the largest book distributor in the country, to sell our book into bookstores and specialty stores across the country. Jessica and I can do a lot of what needs to be done to publish a book ourselves, but we can’t get wide distribution into stores. For us, that was the principal value of publishing with She Writes Press. That and the creative control because, if I haven’t mentioned it, we are complete control freaks!
You guys are total bosses at branding. What’s your secret?
Jessica: Mainly branding comes down to creating a consistent “face” for whatever it is you are doing, whether that’s product branding or personal branding. You want your visuals and your tone to be instantly recognizable. With cartoons that’s a little easier because artists tend to have a certain graphic style. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make changes along the way. I recently redesigned our website, logo treatment and the layout of our cartoons to be more in line with the look of the book, but you can still tell that they are ours. Once you have the overall concept, it’s important to maintain it, so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re doing something you are actually interested in. Don’t try to be a snarky mom blogger if that’s not really who you are, because eventually you’ll get tired of the act and want to switch gears, and you will have built that particular “brand” for nothing.
How do you balance life and running your business?
Norine: I’m an utter failure at work-life balance, sorry to say, because I know you’re looking for some wisdom here. But that kind of balance is something I struggle with every day. I’m a workaholic. Years ago, when I was editor of an equestrian magazine, I redrew the entire layout of the magazine while I was in Italy… on my honeymoon. I was back at my desk, revising a story for Fitness magazine, two weeks after giving birth. Work is my passion, and I find it very difficult to put it aside and relax even when I make time to. I’m fairly certain the one phrase my son will remember from his childhood is, “Not now. Mommy’s working.”
Jessica: It is hard, but it’s gotten much easier as my son has gotten older. He’s in middle school now, and while the homework is killing me and a bit more intense, he’s more self-sufficient and has gotten much better at doing his own thing while I’m working. I do have to shut down at 3 p.m. to help with homework when he comes home, but by then I’m pretty ready to be done. I also tend to sneak a bit of work in on the weekends.
Do you have any procrastination techniques that you always fall back on? How do you break out of them?
Norine: Ha! I get a lot of laundry done when I have a project that I don’t want to deal with. And my house gets very clean! Suddenly, I’m sorting socks and clearing out the toy bins and tossing old magazines I kept meaning to read and never did. But as much as it’s a procrastination tactic, it’s also part of my creative process too. I work at home, so clearing out clutter and straightening up the house before I dive into the next project—writing a blog post, crafting a press release, writing a pitch letter—serves to clear out the mental clutter so I can focus. Organized house, organized mind. And when that doesn’t work, I look for funny memes to post on Science of Parenthood’s Facebook page to keep our audience entertained. I can get lost on Pinterest or Facebook for hours.
Jessica: Facebook gets waaaay too much of my attention. But one of the nice things about the cartoons is that they don’t tend to feel like real work. So sometimes I do those instead of the web design work I should be doing. It’s creative, AND it has to get done, so it’s almost like I’m cheating.
Do you have any tips for other ladies who are looking to turn their passion into a business?
Norine: I really only know publishing. But if you’re interested in creating a blog that eventually becomes a book (or books) with ancillary products like fridge magnets and mugs and t-shirts, calendars, etc., then I would have to say, work on building your network as you’re creating your content. Generosity really is the currency of the blogosphere. Jessica and I create some pretty funny stuff together. But our work gets distributed more widely because we have generous friends who share, retweet and pin our content. And we do likewise.
A solid network’s key because you also learn so much from sharing ideas and best practices with other bloggers and writers, so you don’t have to keep inventing the proverbial wheel. We belong to several secret Facebook groups where asking the “dumb” questions is not only safe, it’s encouraged. And there’s always a rush of bloggers to answer or point you to resources or help out in some other way. In the history of publishing things, from let’s say, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Gutenberg’s Bible all the way up to the SnapChat that just vanished from your tween’s phone, blogging is still comparatively new. And everyone remembers how clueless they were when they started out, so they’re happy to help the next one coming up.
Jessica: I think the key lies in your question—“passion.” Make sure that whatever it is you’re doing, you’re doing it because you love it. The money might take a while to come or might not come at all. You should at least be having fun. When we’ve had a blog-related bill to pay, I’ve told myself, Well, I could be spending this money on beads—It’s ok to have a hobby. If you are trying to make serious income from a blog, there are people far better qualified than us to ask! But on the business side, I do recommend opening a separate business account, these are often free, and (or at least) maintaining a separate credit card for your expenses.
Norine: And maybe keep some paper bags around for hyperventilating. We’ve made some costly mistakes as we’ve stumbled along our way. But we haven’t made the same mistake twice. The only other thing I’d add is, if possible, team up with a simpatico partner. My skill set and Jessica’s dovetail so nicely, we’re never duplicating efforts, which means we get more done. I don’t have to waste time struggling with graphics programs or tear my hair out trying to figure out why some plug-in isn’t working because Jessica’s the artist and the site designer. I’m a relentless promoter with lots of media contacts; Jessica’s got a superb head for business and marketing. We really are more than the sum of our parts. Besides, content creation can be lonely business. The learning curve can be steep. It helps to have a partner, someone in your corner who can be honest with you when an idea really sucks. But to also say, “Hang in! It gets better!” when you’re tempted to toss in the proverbial towel.
Jessica: I know that’s not always realistic, finding a person to jump down the rabbit hole with you. That’s where developing that online network becomes so important. I know many bloggers who have a “blog wife.” They don’t work on the same blog, but they somehow connected and became each other’s go-to support system. Don’t be afraid to jump into the blogging world on Facebook or wherever “your people” are found. Comment, talk to people, if you have useful skills to offer, do it. And, of course, do good work. You’ll find a support system, I promise.
Norine and Jessica are the co-authors of Science of Parenthood: Thoroughly Unscientific Explanations for Utterly Baffling Parenting Situations, published yesterday by She Writes Press. Find it on Amazon or wherever books are sold. Wanna see them in person? They’re currently on a book tour!