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The Accidental Entrepreneurs

by | May 2, 2016 | Appearances, Our Work | 10 comments

It has been a big year.

And yet we haven’t been able to keep you up to date because so much has been happening behind the scenes — developments that we had to keep under wraps until certain news became public.

A few weeks ago, the last bit of secret info became unsecret, so now we can share the entire story.

Let’s go way back for a second. Back to when we were young and unattractive (as opposed to middle-aged and not so bad looking). Even way back then, we both had literary dreams. Robbi wanted to illustrate children’s books, and I longed to write novels. Back then, we had no idea that the canyons that lay between us and those dreams were deep and treacherous and impossibly wide.


We both survived adolescence, if barely. We went to college, where we met but did not fall in love. A few years later, we met again, and this time we took a closer look and noticed something worth investigation.


We fell in love and blah and blah. More importantly, we accidentally discovered that there was fun to be had in combining Robbi’s illustrations with my strange little stories. We made a few books together and liked it a lot. Suddenly, there was a new dream, to make illustrated books together.

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But however earnestly we desired to build a life around making books, it seemed impossible. There was the matter of making enough money to feed ourselves, for example. There was the matter of having jobs and planning for the future and being responsible adults.

We wanted to make books, but we didn’t know how to make a life of it.


Robbi had her MFA, and I figured I needed one, too. So I applied to six of the nation’s finest MFA programs in fiction.

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And I got rejected by seven of them.

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True story. I got rejected by the University of Minnesota on consecutive Mondays. Same letter signed by the same guy. I guess they were try trying to make sure I knew that the grad school path was not for me.

That option closed, we continued life as we knew it, we continued not making books, we continued being tired and sad.

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But one day we realized that the only thing standing between ourselves and a life of making books was logic and our sense of the way things were supposed to be done. So we embraced foolishness, quit our jobs, sold our stuff, and moved into an old barn on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, to the hayloft above Robbi’s mom’s pottery studio. We resolved to make books until we’d burned through our savings. We needed to get the urge out of our systems. And so we wrote and drew pictures and bought a lot of paper. We started a small press called Idiots’Books and set up a subscription service to make sure we’d have someone to share our work with.

We rolled up our sleeves and made a bunch of books. We sent them to our loyal supporters/subscribers.


We were in creative heaven. We made exactly what we wanted to make, because that was the entire point of the experiment. Our creative freedom led to twenty books in the first two years. One of these was After Everafter.


A fairy tale-themed mix-and-match book, After Everafter captured the attention of a guy named Jesse who worked for Disney at the time.

Jesse held onto our book, and one day, a few years later, brought it to a meeting at the publishing company Little, Brown. One of the editors was working on a mix-and-match book and needed someone who knew how to work in that format.


The editor gave us a call and asked if we were interested in working on her book. Her name is Erin. She’s very nice. Screen-Shot-2016-04-04-at-10.57.26-AM

The book in question was part of the Marvel Super Hero Squad series (the SHS is a little kid version of the Marvel favorites). Erin wondered if we might be interested in writing and illustrating the next chapter in the lives of Spider Man and friends.

We said yes, of course. This wasn’t quite the project we’d imagined when lounging around with our childhood dreams, but it was a huge opportunity. A great big foot in the door


Around this, time, we dove with abandon into another type of creative collaboration.


Because we were still trying to make ten books a year to fuel the Idiots’Books subscription, we had to create efficiencies wherever we could find them. So, instead of formal birth announcements, we made each of the kids a book that we could also send out to our subscribers. Screen-Shot-2016-04-04-at-10.56.46-AMWe shared all of our books with Erin, of course, because what is the point of making books if not finding smart, discerning people to read them? Erin was particularly taken with one of our titles, Babies Ruin Everything. The original was pure satire, intended for adults. But Erin was convinced that it could be adapted into a book for the commercial children’s market, specifically for the niche of people who are having second kids. And so she and I started noodling on a manuscript. We passed it back and forth for months, both hopeful that we could come up with something that might work.


Months passed and Robbi and I kept making our own books and haphazardly raising our own ruinous babies. One day we got a call from Erin. We had the green light to move forward with Babies Ruin Everything version 2.0. Robbi’s dream was coming true. Screen-Shot-2016-04-04-at-10.57.47-AM

She was going to get the chance to illustrate a children’s book with a major publishing company. And this time, instead of Spider Man and company, she would be illustrating her own characters and creating her own world.

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(As a brief aside, if you are planning on obtaining this book, it is now available for pre-order.)

But the story just kept getting better. While we were still working on Babies Ruin Everything, Erin got her own big break, a chance to start her own imprint (publishing division) at Macmillan. And so she moved a few blocks and took up residence on the eighth floor of the Flatiron Building, where she created Imprint, a publishing space that “fosters collaboration, finds ideas in unexpected places, and looks ahead to the future.” Erin thought her mission and ours lined up pretty well.

Lucky for us, Erin was suddenly extremely powerful.


No, she does not use her eye lasers to level skyscrapers (though I have no doubt that she could). Erin is now the publisher in addition to being the editor. Which means she now has much wider responsibility for acquisitions and shaping a list (the collection of books published by a given imprint). And lucky for us, Erin has used her new superpowers to give us even more opportunities.

As a follow-up to Babies Ruin Everything, which comes out in July, we will be doing another picture book called Everywhere, Wonder, which comes out in 2017.

And apropos of the recent announcement that has finally made it possible for me to tell this story, Erin has just acquired the first two books in our middle grades series about a a problem-solving brother/sister duo who look past their opposite inclinations to save the day.

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Here are our protagonists, Moxie and Milton. This duo has captured a corner of my heart usually only reserved for my actual children. The books are narrated by Moxie, and channeling her voice fills me with indescribable joy. This opportunity is the ultimate gift.


Which is to say, my dreams are coming true, too.

Robbi and I have been doing some reflection of late. Our road has been of the winding and unpredictable variety.

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If we had pursued our publishing dreams directly, we would have created a manuscript and sent it off to publishers.


Where it would most likely have languished forever, moldy and unloved, in the proverbial slush pile.



Our chance to work with Erin came as the result of doing our own thing, on our own terms, for as long as it took for various stars to align and the right set of opportunities to come our way.

It goes back to making the fairy-tale themed After Everafter and the lucky fact that the guy from Disney just happened to stop by our table and buy it that day.



Though Robbi insists that luck had nothing to do with it.


This opportunity also goes back to being so busy that we had to make the original version of Babies Ruin Everything so that we could kill two birds with one stone. And to the fact that we happened to cross paths with an editor with the vision to see that it might be adapted for the commercial market. And the patience to work with us to make it happen.

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Another indispensable factor in this story has been our extraordinary agent Meredith Kaffel Simonoff.

Meredith is our advisor and cheerleader and sounding board. She is our conscience and compass and speaker of truth. She is simply the best.



She is the person who does the hard work of pitching and advocating for our work, for advising us about the publishing landscape, for placing every decision we make in the context of a bigger picture. She also attends to the countless negotiations and fine points that attend a book deal and the making of a contract. We would be lost without her and can’t thank her enough for everything she does on our behalf.


But, of course, there are an ocean of people to thank. Erin, Jesse (the guy from Disney), Meredith, Robbi’s parents (for letting us live in this barn), my boss Clifford (for giving me the job that has sustained us for the decade it has taken for making books to actually provide a shred of revenue), our loyal subscribers (for supporting this crazy dream to make books together), and the University of Minnesota, for sending me on the path less traveled.

This was the scene about nine months ago, when we got the news that The Real McCoys would be moving from the “dream” column over to “actually going to happen.”


And here is what it looked like a few months later, when a fat stack of contracts arrived.


Usually, I find paperwork to be a drag. This time, not so much.


This post is but a check in. This story is not done. I tell it today because we have spent the past ten years traveling with you. We have survived on your support and on your investment in our adventures. If there’s any lesson I can glean or any advice I can share, it’s that the factors that have led to these dreams coming true have been a mixture of sheer persistence and remarkable good fortune.

We’ve been lucky, to be sure. But none of it could have happened without waking up each morning with a determination to go all in for the sake of doing the thing we love most.

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Which is making books together. We’ve been flying solo (or duo?) for a long time. Now, thanks to Erin and Meredith, we’re going to keep doing it at least a few years longer.

Thank you. Thank you. Gratitude all around. And now I must go.

There are books to be made.






  1. Rebecca

    I clicked over from your post on FB. You were right, the nudity was underwhelming. But this blog post is awesome! I found the old pix of you two, in those 80s/90s glasses, most entertaining!

  2. Pam Foss

    I’m so happy for you, life is to short not to do something you love and making it a family affair. Congratulations.

  3. Adrian K.

    So SO happy for you guys! Yay! Well-earned and incredibly exciting! My youngest (Milo) has recently been learning to read and was enjoying The Baby is Disappointing, Ten Thousand Stories and Benji McBean over the weekend. Made my heart leap to see him enjoying the fruits of your creative labor. Keep doing what you’re doing!

  4. Aunt Patti

    I was so filled with love reading your story and about to cry when Robbi spontaneously flashes the Disney guy! So happy for all of you with love. Aunt Patti

  5. Kris

    That is wonderful! What an excellent story, and I can’t wait to see how it goes on.

    Is Matthew crying (or at least verklempt) in that photo with the contracts? I wouldn’t blame him one bit. Just watching other people’s dreams come to fruition makes me teary, never mind when it happens to me.

  6. Jilanne Hoffmann

    Inspiring. Funny. Brilliant. Guess I’d better get off my butt and go all in before the IRS starts calling my change of occupation a hobby….Congratulations on your success!

  7. jenifer e e

    I’m so excited and proud that I’m pretty much at a loss for words.

  8. Abby M (& Virginia D)

    Woohooo!!!!! Congratulations on this very well-deserved opportunity. We are so happy for you.

  9. :Donna

    You two are absolutely amazing! I just read so much on this site and couldn’t be happier for you both :) I really can’t wait to see BABIES RUIN EVERYTHING and whatever else you put out into the world. This is one of the most charming blogs/sites I’ve ever seen. I was pulled right in and if your books are anything like this blog, you are going to become extraordinarily successful! Yay for you! :D

  10. Matthew Swanson

    Well, my goodness, Donna, thank you for your kind words. Your enthusiasm is welcome and energizing. As for our new work, Everywhere, Wonder (the follow-up to Babies Ruin Everything) is in ARE form and comes out in February. Robbi and I are both working hard on our illustrated middle grades series the Real McCoys. She just finished sketching book 1 and is starting to work on the finals, and I’m in the midst of reworking book 2 after receiving a round of feedback from our editor last week. So our life in words and pictures is busy and gratifying with many exciting benchmarks to come. Thanks so much for spending some time on the blog today. I hope our paths cross at some point.


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