Author, screenwriter, performer and director Derek Taylor Kent is best known for his children’s books- The Scary School Series and many more. His best-selling, award-winning titles are treasured in hundreds of thousands of homes across the world. Derek and his wife Sheri Fink, are the proud founders of Whimsical World— an empowering children’s brand that publishes books and produces whimsical merchandise, inspiring entertainment, and magical experiences for children of all ages.
Hello Derek, tell me about your writing and how you started writing?
I feel like I’ve been writing pretty seriously since I was about seven years old… I realized that I loved writing. I was kind of the weird kid in class who loved writing weird long crazy stories during creative writing time. I’d stay in at recess to finish my stories.
I even loved reading the dictionary so I could learn new words during free reading time! I guess I’ve always loved creativity in all its forms… and writing was a way that I could make my friends laugh and use my imagination. So I feel like it has been a part of my whole life.
As I grew up I just felt like I had to continue doing it because I loved making people happy through my writing. When I was young I really loved making kids laugh…making my friends laugh and as I grew up I was still really good at making my friends laugh but I was especially good at making kids laugh. So I wanted to write books that would be like the funniest books ever…books that would inspire kids to fall in love with reading through laughter!
Oh, I love that, “to fall in love with reading through laughter!” Tell me more about your books, and which age groups do your books cater to?
I’m a kind of a rare author I guess who writes for many different types of age groups— from the babies all the way to grown-ups. Sheri (Derek’s wife and author Sheri Fink. Check her interview here) and I co-wrote a counting book together that was for about ages 2-5 (the Counting Sea Life with the Little Sea Horse). I also have a whole bunch of picture books for ages 3-8 that typically have a lot of humour in them and are also educational at the same time, for instance, Dinosaur Derby, where Jurassic Park meets Fast and the Furious for kids! It has the secret world of underground dinosaur racing…so it teaches kids all about dinosaurs and gets them to fall in love with the science of dinosaurs while reading a really fun storyline about a race.
I also have a book Simon and the Solar System. It is a space STEM book that teaches kids about the planets. There’s one pure humour book called The Grossest Picture Book Ever!
I’ve also written a range of bilingual books which are written in English and Spanish. I have three books in my El Perro Con Sombrero series which is about our dog Xander. I have also created a whole bunch of scary middle-grade books… they were published by Harper Collins and my newest ones were Principal Mikey and My Homework Ate my Dog. I also wrote a book for grown-ups called Kubrick’s Game which is kind of a puzzle thriller similar to The Da Vinci Code and a ready player one.
Wow, how do you get so many extremely different ideas?
I don’t know! I guess because I’ve been writing for so long and I always write my ideas down. I kind of have a lifetime of ideas saved up so for me it’s just a matter of picking up which one I want to do next.
I think the ideas come from all sorts of different places like when I had my El Perro Con Sombrero series I was inspired by the crazy antics of my dog Xander. Sometimes a fun title will just come to mind. That’s kind of what happened with my Scary School series I thought of the name Scary School for a book and was surprised to find that it had not been written yet. That started a train of questions in my mind. I thought about what would a scary school be like and started asking questions that would answer the question of the mystery that the title raised. Then I just started answering them and that led to more questions…
I guess there’ll be a lot of monsters there…
What if the monsters and kids and regular kids went to school together for the first time… what would that be like?
Their answers helped me find a story.
Ideas can come from all sorts of different places. it’s more a matter of some sometimes writing them down because these ideas are the easiest thing to forget if you don’t write them down. If you start writing down all the ideas you have… you can build up a pretty good list of ideas that could last you a long time.
That’s interesting. Where do you write down your ideas? I use Evernote to write down my ideas and sometimes I use my iPhone but then the list starts growing so big that it sometimes seems a task to go through them.
I have a document on my computer that contains all the ideas I have ever had. Sometimes if it’s late at night or something, I’ll make a note on my phone. But it’s hard to do and sometimes when you’re tired you think, “Oh I’ll remember it, I’m sure,” but when you wake up you never remember.
How did you grow your author platform? I mean it must have been quite a journey because you have a lot of different kinds of books and did you think about an author platform in the very beginning or did it grow organically?
I’ve always been into the marketing side of the book business. It was something that I was always very interested in. I studied it and researched it a lot before I started. So when I got my first kind of big break in writing (that was when I got my three-book deal for the Scary School series) I immediately started creating a plan to help build my platform and my author brand.
One of the first things on my list was to create a website. I hired a company to do that and made it really got a step above and beyond most book websites. There was a video game we created that kids could go and play. There were animations on the website. We created a book trailer which was an animated short movie about the book. So when I got the books I was able to start sending them out for reviews.
I think I did the biggest book launch ever in terms of reviews. I had over 300 book bloggers do reviews of the Scary School books. I think at the time it was the golden age of blogging so everyone was looking for content and they were very excited to get a free book.
Now it’s a little bit harder because not as many people are trying to get their blogging going and doing reviews for free anymore. But at the time when it launched which was around 2010 to 2012…was a very exciting time. I had about 300 people write reviews on it and created social media accounts for myself and my characters.
The Scary School series was kind of authorized with characters similar to Lemony Snicket. It has a persona named Derek the Ghost who’s an 11-year-old-ghost that lives at Scary school and he’s supposed to be the writer. So I had videographers come to all my first events and they created fun little movies of the signings and the book launch parties. I threw a giant book launch event too that had magicians and musical performances in addition to the readings and the big spread of cake.
I was trying to think of everything I could possibly do. I even printed out 5000 Scary School t-shirts that I would just give away to try and spread awareness. Maybe if you bought the book you got the free t-shirt! It was very exciting I think every kid in Los Angeles had a Scary School t-shirt at some point. Eventually, I had to tone it down.
What are some other tips you might give authors who are just starting out to create a platform?
I guess if you aren’t on social media yet, you could create social media accounts on various platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. LinkedIn is a very good resource also that I know Sheri loves to use. You can start your own website. It doesn’t have to be something amazing when you’re first starting out but just a basic website that has information about you and your books and how to follow you and some benefits for people that come and check you out.
Try and think of ways that you can be of service to people if they want to reach out to you by blogging and describing your experiences (as a writer). So if you’re just starting out writing and there are a lot of others who are doing the same thing… they will want to hear about your experience. Sharing your experiences on a blog or on social media will be valuable to a lot of other aspiring authors.
You could start off by reaching out to your own networks. That’s the way you start. People that you know— your friends and your family are probably your biggest supporters when you’re first starting out. After that, it’s about finding ways to encourage your readers so that they get to follow you and become a fan.
Make sure they know when you publish your books to always give information at the end of your book about how people can follow you and how they can reach out to you for more information about your books and your future projects. Point them to your website for instance, with the Scary School books we created secret chapters at the end so that the kids have to go to my website to find the secret chapters and we even tell them at the end of the book that if they want they can take a quiz on the website. Like we have a quiz by one of the teachers, Miss Fang…if they pass the quiz they win the weirdest trophy they’ve ever seen!
For Kubrick’s Game, I needed a new audience. So I created a whole treasure hunt because the theme of the novel was a treasure hunt similar to Da Vinci Code, where the characters get to solve puzzles and find clues in the real world to try and find this treasure that a great filmmaker left behind. I created a similar thing for my readers where they could do a whole treasure hunt going. It went on for the first six months after the book’s release. The treasure hunt was all online so they could play it from anywhere in the world. They would go to the website to sign up for it and then they’d be given clues and things like tasks that they had to perform…things they had to do in order to win some prizes and I put up some really amazing prizes at the end for them. It was wonderful.
I mean there are so many ideas that you can think of if you try to imagine yourself as your reader and if you have money because a lot of people are working on very limited budgets. But if you do have a large budget you can hire a high-end publicist too. I hired a low-end publicist when I first started and I realized after they’d worked for me for a while that everything they were doing were probably things I could do myself. So I learned a lot from that experience.
Publicists are also there for authors they can help you get a lot more media attention, to start building your platform and just your online and media presence works really well especially if you have non-fiction titles that are good for things like talk shows and magazine/newspaper articles.
But for children’s books do publicists work as well or is it better for non-fiction?
I guess it depends on the type of children’s books…there’s definitely a lot of them and the market is very saturated with them so it’s hard to get any kind of exposure for them. If they have a really pertinent message or theme that is really big in the media at the time that might catch their (the media’s) interest but I think it’s definitely a little bit harder with children’s books than it would be with a non-fiction title— something that’s journalistic, or something important or newsworthy, you know…because when you imagine your children’s books there’s so much visual element in the children’s book so you will be hiring illustrators.
I definitely hire illustrators. I am not a very good artist at all, unfortunately, so I like to hire different illustrators for different books depending on which ones I feel work best for a specific title. I like to find artists whose sensibility mesh well with that particular title so that’s the fun part of it. I love working with them to see what their vision of my work is.
Do you think that it takes a lot of effort to create a quality product? There’s money and time involved to create an author platform yet it’s so exciting. What are the challenges that you face as a writer?
Well, I think every day is a different challenge. I think in a business there are different possibilities…things you can do.. you have a list you’ll never get through, there are challenges on the writing side like finding the balance between marketing and the creative…how much time should I spend marketing my writer business versus writing and creating a new product. There are challenges with advertising and moving with the advertising trends to find out what works for you. There are Amazon ads, Facebook ads, Instagram ads, Reddit ads and Twitter ads…we’re always experimenting in so many different ways. There are a lot of different ways to market your books into paid advertising sources and you need to find out which one is working better than another.
Then there are other challenges— why something that works amazing for you for a while suddenly stops working for no reason… should you try and change it or do something else… there’s so much on the business side that’s constantly changing and evolving that you have to keep up with it and keep finding other opportunities constantly which are outside writing for instance speaking and teaching.
Both Sheri and I teach at an author learning centre. I used to teach classes at the Writing Pad every week which was an in-person writing school and we get offers to travel and do speaking engagements all over the country. We just came back from the Denver Unicorn festival where we did shows and got a booth to sell our books. Finding all these new opportunities…
Now that the pandemic’s over there are a lot more in-person events coming up again… so we have to try and figure out which ones we want to do, which ones are worth travelling for and how much we are going to spend on the travel expenses versus how much we’d expect to make.
We’re trying to figure out ways to expand our into schools now that schools are coming back to in-person. Before the pandemic we used to do anywhere from like three to four school visits a week during the fall and spring… but now we haven’t been able to do that for about a year and a half because of the pandemic so we have to figure out a way to launch back into that in a bigger and better way than ever with new opportunities and new products that we can offer to schools and the students.
So there’s just it’s an unending list of challenges every day that we look at…
Do you ever feel that you would have enjoyed doing something else rather than writing?
I think I would have always been writing in some form no matter what…there are other things I might have definitely enjoyed. When I graduated from college I was in the movie business for a while I worked at a production company. I really enjoyed that. It was definitely one career path I could have taken where I could have been more kind of behind the scenes in the movies but my goal was always to be much more creative through either writing or directing. I did theatre for a long time. I always went to theatre school in college. I was an actor for about 10 years. It was like kind of the main focus of my life…through my 20s I was either doing acting in theatre or doing a lot of children’s theatre also. That helped prepare me for what I do now…
when I visit schools and kind of turn my books into a whole theatrical production for the kids.
Creating a theatrical production out of your books must be really exciting because you can get so much more out of your book. If I just go there and just read a book that will not be as exciting as you would make it with your acting?
Yeah, we do a whole big production. We have a slideshow that has pictures and illustrations that kids can look at on a big screen. For Scary School I do a whole interactive choose-your-own-adventure with the kids where I bring the characters to life and let the kids decide what happens on their first day at Scary School.
I used to have some costumes I’d wear…but it became too much. I now do body movements and voices to help bring characters to life, like I have my crazy troll character and I used to have a whole box of like weird gross stuff to go along with the Scary School books. I’d even give them a stuffed vampire bat that they could touch or alligator claws! You know… weird stuff like that. I thought that was thematic and fun, but each one of the books has its own unique show. I have a bilingual English and Spanish show for the El Perro Con Sombrero series and sometimes I bring Xander and he does tricks. He does a whole series of tricks for the kids he does. He has around 50 tricks!
So we do a trick show for the kids and the kids learn how to meet a dog on the street. There are always fun and interactive elements that I bring to the shows.
That is wonderful… you give so much more to your book experience!
Yes, that’s a whole other part— creating shows. Each new book needs its own new show so that’s a whole new challenge with each book and for the middle graders the kind of book you do need a lot of enactments.
I’m sure your training as an actor also helps you a lot…
Right yes, I’ve always been that way… also you know since I was a kid I’ve always kind of been a ham. I love to be on stage and act out silly characters with accents and voices. It’s always kind of been a part of me so it feels like I’ve been doing the same thing since I was seven years old!
It’s great that you have a spark of a child’s imagination in you…and you’ve let it dull down. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with writers
Well, I feel like people struggle when they feel that what they write isn’t very good and the truth is the first draft of any book is never very good. Nothing that I’ve written when I first drafted it, has ever been very good. I think as an actor I’ve learnt to deal with rejection and have grown a thick skin. It takes a lot of work and rehearsals to get to a place where a show is good and that takes months and months of rehearsals…on the same account, a book will take months and months of editing and work before it’s in a place where you’d want to send it out to a publisher or publish it for the world.
So I think shutting off that inner critic for a while and just getting the story out there or writing down something, whatever it is… to try and get it on the page first and then worry about whether it’s good or not later. You have an unlimited amount of time to edit, to show it to other people for their feedback…there’s no big time rush on anything if you’re not under contract to get something done by a certain date. So take all the time you need to edit and get to a space where you feel like it’s good enough. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Nothing’s ever going to get to that point where it’s perfect but if your book’s at a point where you feel like, you know… the feedback is good and people will enjoy… you know it that’s great.
I think author platforms are always, constantly evolving. So I think it helps to follow authors that you like… see what they’re doing, what avenues they’re using to build their platform. That way you can be inspired and kind of have a little bit of a road map for yourself. Read articles like this one… there are a lot of articles on writing.
You shouldn’t be a writer if you don’t like to research. If you don’t like to research and read about things then writing is not the career for you, anyway. The more research you do, the more books you read… the better off you’ll be and the better grasp you’ll have on exactly what’s going to work best for you and what you’re capable of.
When you think of ideas in a specific niche so do you sometimes say okay I will write something that’s completely different or should you just go with what’s going on in the niche?
I’m sure the practical advice would be to tell you that you should find a niche that you like and really stick to it to help build an audience in that genre right…that’s probably the smartest thing to do. If you want to build your author brand quickly and build an audience I can see the practicality of that…on the other hand as writers we have we are very passionate about different things at different times and if you aren’t passionate about what you’re writing then it’s harder to write. So you know… I probably could have just stuck with my middle-grade writing because that’s kind of what launched me as an author first and what I could have just kept doing and stuck with that… but my passion at one moment became more for like a grown-up book because I got inspired by some other books that I read and I couldn’t stop thinking about and that’s what had to get out of me… that ended up being a big success on its own and kind of brought a whole new audience to me. So I think I would tell people to follow their passions because whatever you’re most passionate about doing is probably what’s going to end up being the best…
If you’re writing something you’re not passionate about probably it won’t turn out as good as something you are (passionate about). So follow your passions and if your passion is to build your author brand then probably sticking to that one genre is going to work out great for you.
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