Ethan Herald is a natural storyteller. Almost as soon as he started talking, he made up fully-fleshed characters and told his parents all about them — what they did, where they went, what they wanted for dinner.
Today, five-year-old Ethan is a published author — thanks to his dad, Brian Herald. Herald, a technical writer by trade, was amused at his son’s stories and started jotting them down to remember them. Eventually, he realized that many of Ethan’s stories were more than a child’s ramblings; they had recognizable plots with beginning, middle, and end.
“One story in particular really stood out, so I thought that it would be cool to turn it into a book for him and surprise him with it,” Herald says. “So I wrote it out and broke it into pages and made a full story out of it and hired an illustrator.”
He printed a few dozen copies to share and expected to stop there. But soon, Herald dug into the world of self-publishing, and the more he learned about the industry, the more he wanted to see what he could do with his son’s stories.
That’s how Herald and Sons Publishing, the ultimate father-son DIY project, got off the ground. To provide a platform for Ethan’s stories, Herald started up their own indie publishing house. “On our website, we say it tongue-in-cheek: We are building a publishing empire on a foundation of child labor.”
Herald and his sons, Ethan and four-year-old Jonah, are a year into the project and have collaborated on two books, with a third scheduled to hit the presses this month. To flesh out a world around their characters and engage audiences, Herald is experimenting with activities, coloring pages, and videos — all hosted on their trusty DreamHost website.
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Telling Good Stories
Growing up, Herald was part of his own father-and-son business. His dad owned Herald and Sons Construction, and he fondly remembers helping out on projects when he was young.
“He still has one of the ‘Herald and Sons Construction’ signs hanging up in his garage,” Herald says. “I still see that every time I go over. And when I thought of the name Herald and Sons Publishing, I was just like, ‘Oh man, that’s just too perfect. I can’t not do that.’”
Herald built his humble “publishing empire” to provide a home for Ethan’s books online, and the additional projects he creates. From the beginning, Herald wanted to make sure to put out a quality story that other kids could relate to.
“I wanted them to be good stories,” he says, “with a moral, a lesson, or substance to them, not just these tangents that my kids go on.”
Their first book, Forest Explorer, features Nino and his younger sister, Tenna — characters who have basically become members of the family now, thanks to Ethan’s detailed descriptions of the two and their adventures. In the story, Nino goes on a walk in a forest near his home. He notices flowers, insects, and the smells of the forest, and then spots a forest fire, which he tries to put out until the fire department comes to save the day.
Herald asks his sons questions to flesh out and fully develop each story, pushing for more and more details — including ones only a kid could dream up.
“I asked Ethan, ‘So, how did that fire start?’” Herald says. “And he’s like, ‘A dragon came down and sprayed fire.’ Oh, of course, the dragon started the fire. Obviously, it wasn’t because the bush was dry, and it was a strong wind or anything like that.”
Herald wrote that answer down with a smile, hoping that his son’s thinking would connect well with other children. He asked for more details about what Nino saw in the woods, and “I realized that there was a moral there, or a lesson, which is being curious — like, you should always be aware of what’s around you, and you should be curious about what’s going on. So I try to infuse that in the story.”
Forest Explorer — plus its sequel Picture This, Imagine That — and a soon-to-be-published Nino and Tenna camping adventure story are available as printed books, e-reader downloads, and even audiobooks. Herald hopes these stories, along with the accompanying printable activities from his website, have some role in promoting language learning among young readers.
“The goal has become to entertain and inform readers while promoting literacy and language learning,” Herald says. “The stories and the kids’ activities and coloring pages are based around developing language, using repetition with words. In the back of my mind, I keep asking, ‘How is this helpful? Is this actually contributing something to the kids reading the story?’ I don’t want them reading empty words with nothing behind them.”
Possibility Through Self Publishing
Forest Explorer was never supposed to be more than a fun surprise for Ethan and Jonah. But through the process of writing and printing it, Herald was introduced to the world of self-publishing — and the idea that he could take action to bring Nino and Tenna to a wider audience.
“I got really into a few podcasts, and one in particular, called The Self Publishing Show,” Herald says. “It just really struck me how they take a marketing perspective, and not just say, ‘You’re a great writer; your stories deserve to be told.’ It was more focused on, like, the logical steps you can take to promote your stories.”
Once Herald understood there were steps he could take to market his stories, he took it on as a personal challenge to see how far he could take Herald and Sons. He doesn’t sell the books directly on his website, but they’re available from a number of online retailers, including Amazon.
“Amazon has a really great platform for independent publishers where they offer a print-on-demand service,” Herald says. “Originally, my plan was to set up a seller account and just mail these things out one by one. But that simply is not scalable — I can’t be going to the post office every single day.”
He’s also made the print and audiobooks available to libraries, both locally and around the country, and can track when the book is checked out. “To see it getting discovered in a library and then checked out and listened to, it’s kind of cool.”
Thinking Like a Marketer
Herald has found marketing his books to be a challenge, and he really enjoys that aspect of publishing children’s stories. He stays up late at night filling Excel sheets with potential keywords, crafting ad copy, and finding new ways to get Ethan’s characters in front of more people.
“You can’t just put a book out and just sit there and wait for it to do anything,” he says.
You have to build a world around it, have activities that go along with it, and engage people — get them interested and give people something to do.”
One of his challenges is catering to two different audiences. The books and corresponding activities are used by children — but the ones doing the spending are parents and grandparents. “You’ve got to reach the parents and create something that they think their kids would enjoy. That’s really tricky, and I’m still working on getting the right voice and brand to present our stories as something a lot of kids would like to read.”
A key piece to organically growing an audience is creating fun, engaging activities and other materials freely available online that can introduce kids (and their parents) to Nino and Tenna. Herald offers activity books and other printable activities, including weekly word searches, mazes, coloring pages, and more.
Particularly popular are his kid’s calendars. Released each month in color and as coloring pages, the calendars list one fun holiday — think “Wiggle Your Toes Day” or “Chocolate Chip Cookie Day” — for each day of the month. Herald promotes these calendars on social media, using them as a way to bring visitors to his website and build his email marketing list. At the beginning of a new month, he advertises them on social media and sees big increases in website traffic — but always trusts his web host to keep everything loading quick and smoothly, even on busy days.
This wasn’t the first time Herald has built and managed a website, though. He played drums in a band and started a flooring business with a friend and, in both cases, dreaded working on the websites.
With Herald and Sons, he took a leap of faith and switched over to a WordPress site hosted by DreamHost. Herald had been intimidated by WordPress in the past, but found it surprisingly easy and user friendly — and much more detailed, powerful, and effective than other platforms.
“I’m loving it; it’s so easy to use,” Herald says. “It does such a good job. I wish I’d used it to begin with other websites I’ve worked on.” He does most website updates on a browser, but sometimes he has to make a quick update or has a brilliant idea on the go and uses the WordPress app on his phone.
Herald runs social media accounts for the business, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time using them specifically to grow his audience. Concerned about social media platforms and changing algorithms that impact how followers find activities and updates, Herald decided to focus primarily on his website.
“It’s so important to have your own space, your own home base,” he says. “I’m trying to do a lot of different things for marketing, like Facebook and Amazon advertisements, and just using social media a little bit. The website has been huge in this, because everything I come up with, it all goes up on the website, and that’s our home base for everything.”
The website is also key to building an email marketing list, too. WordPress through DreamHost integrates seamlessly with MailChimp to help people sign up for the newsletter to learn about activities and get the kids’ calendar through email.
Herald is happy with his choice to use DreamHost for his website — a choice that was solidified days after he signed up.
“I got an email from a marketing manager; her name was Marissa,” he says. “She reached out just to say hi and check in, you know, to see if I needed anything.”
They emailed back and forth a bit. Herald discovered that Marissa had a new baby at home and ended up sending her a copy of Ethan’s story. “That was a personal touch that felt really great,” he says. “It was validation that I was going on the right path.”
Whether or not they build that publishing empire, Herald is glad to work together with his kids on a project that’s not just fun, but that can really teach them something. Beyond giving Ethan and Jonah the chance to be creative and think critically about story and plot at such young ages, Herald hopes they develop a grit that will serve them well in future projects.
“One thing that I really hope that they get from this is that if they want to create something, or have an idea, that they can just go for it,” says Herald. “They don’t have to wait for somebody to tell them it’s a good idea or even have a good reason for doing it, other than just being interested in it.”
Herald hopes that the boys will be proud of their work down the road — even if it might bring some teasing and embarrassment in the notorious middle school years. The publishing business has been around for about a year now. He’s not sure how long the Nino and Tenna series will last, though Ethan is as eager as always to fill his family in on stories and details about the characters. Eventually, Herald wants to try his hand at writing his own fiction.
For now, Jonah loves hearing their books at bedtime, and Ethan is happy to see his stories in print, scrawling his autograph in five-year-old handwriting across each copy that gets sent out to a friend. Though sometimes on re-readings, Ethan has more feedback on the book: “That’s not what Nino was wearing!” or, “That’s not what he did!”
Herald laughs it off. “It’s OK; we’ll fix that in the next edition.”