The Little Red Racing Car Part II: An Interview with Children's Book Author and Illustrator Dwight Knowlton

April 23, 2014
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The Little Red Racing Car Part II: An Interview with Children's Book Author and Illustrator Dwight Knowlton

The Little Red Racing Car has made quite the journey since our last interview with author Dwight Knowlton in October 2012. Over the past few years, the story evolved from idea to Kickstarter project to a beautiful and lauded children's book.

We caught up with Dwight to hear more about his process, triumphs and bumps along the winding road to successful self-publication.

Dwight, you have had many twists and turns along the way. Take us from the success of Kickstarter and how that played out to where you are today—the highlights and challenges.

I forget sometimes what a journey it’s been. Now I hold the book in my hand, and it’s just a book, but really it’s the culmination of 100,000 tiny decisions and probably a 100 big ones. There were times when it all seemed impossible.

Highlights: Legendary racing driver Sir Stirling Moss lending his name to the story, then being incredibly supportive after it’s release. Being invited to The Petersen Museum in L.A. to launch the book. All of the great press (and reader reviews). And honestly, really high on the highlights list are all of the personal notes, letters, email and photos I’ve gotten from those that have connected with the story.

Challenges: I threw away probably 80% of the work I did. While at times that’s disheartening, that’s how you push through to better work. There were many hurdles: Vendors who became non-responsive. Orders that came back wrong. A total hard drive failure a week before the launch event. A delay at the printer that looked like we weren’t
going to have books in time for the launch at The Petersen in L.A.. And even after all of that, I was more than a little surprised to open the first box of books in L.A. the night before the signing and see the books that I’d ordered in matte finish were actually gloss!

Getting the letter and picture from Sir Stirling Moss must have been one of the biggest highlights—tell us about that.

That was an awesome walk back from the mailbox! Actually, we’ve had a few letters back and forth now. He’s a big fan of the The Little Red Racing Car. In fact he’s collaborating with me on a new book (I’ll share more on that later). He’s signed and inscribed books for my son and I and surprised me with the photo below. He has exceeded my every expectation.

Design, little red racing car, Sir Stirling Moss

Talk about The Petersen Museum and how that day went.

At the beginning of this project, I would never have thought of approaching The Petersen for a book signing or launch event. They are one of the most prestigious venues in the automotive world. The fact that they reached out to me was shocking. They invited a first time author based on a premise and some sketches… months before the book was done!

The launch there was great. It was actually the first time I had held the book in my hand, as the printer delivered a few weeks late. We overnighted four cases of books, and I unveiled them in L.A. for the first time.

The very talented Scottish filmmaker Frazer Spowart (AutoCraft Media) flew in from Atlanta and shot for a short film about the project. We all had a fantastic weekend in L.A., sold more books than there were kids and connected with some great car people who I look forward to seeing again when we launch the next book… they have invited me back!

Design, interview, little red racing car

Self publishing is the new frontier for many creative artists and writers. What can you share that will help them navigate this new terrain?

I believe that independently produced work with infinite reach is going to change the world. It’s definitely changing the face of business. Publishers are merging and disappearing at an incredible rate of speed. The independent producer has the same access to global exposure as the major players. Never before has this been a possibility.

Distribution is still hard work for the independent, but exposure is within everyone’s reach. My email newsletter has subscribers in more than 30 countries—that reach would have been unimaginable a decade ago. And these tools are available to everyone. All you have to do is commit to the countless hours of hard work.

As for helping to navigate the terrain, I don’t think the methods have changed as much as the possible outcome. Tools and technology aside, Have passion. Have work ethic. Desire alone won’t get you there. Connect with others who care. It doesn’t matter if your project is about cars, cats or cashews. Somewhere there are likeminded people who are going to appreciate and energize what you’re doing. Reach them. Their knowledge and belief will help you keep going when you don’t have it in you.

Answer this question: How can you write, draw, publish, promote, market, support, merchandize, build overseas relationships, and maintain a social presence for a children’s book? There is no way.

It’s absolutely as much work as it sounds—but I want to build something that is my own. From the moment I decided to create this, it has always been more than a book—it’s a startup. So there is a lot of dreaming... followed by a lot of planning how to get there. I have some pretty daunting goals for the five-year mark, but given all that’s happening now, it looks achievable.

For the first year, I didn’t take a night or morning off. I worked every available minute on the book, the collateral and the relationships. That’s a lot of movies left unseen and a lot of beers with friends missed. There are hard choices involved with building something. There’s as much time spent unseen as seen. I get a lot of email now. Some is from friendly fans and supporters of the book. Some is potential business or opportunities overseas. Some is press for articles or for interviews like this one. Other messages are from people starting a project of their own who want to know the next step. They are where I was a couple years ago—with an idea and passion, they just want some thoughts on how to go about it. I work hard to answer every email—even if it takes me weeks to get to it.

Of course, we haven’t touched the actual work yet. Research, brainstorming, writing, design, illustration, building and updating a website, writing the copy, creating an email newsletter, brochures, banner stands and trade show POP... Then of course, as it grows, there is negotiating international contracts, working out distribution, approaching retailers, creating new products... and working on a second book.

One of the most important lessons that I’ve had to learn is to “choose my perfect.” I have to be willing to let imperfect work out the door if it’s disposable or can be updated.

A mockup of the coming book cover is disposable. An email newsletter is disposable, it needs to serve it’s purpose but will be discarded. While I’d like for these to be perfect and full to the brim with my best design, I’ve had to settle on newsletters being more utilitarian and save the time for things that will last. This is a very hard thing for me to do, but I create a LOT of imperfect work now and just get it out the door, saving my best attempts at “perfect” for the products themselves.

Design, interview, little red racing car

The reactions to the book have been incredibly positive. Let’s hear some of your favorites or some surprising moments.

Well, it’s hard to top the headline of the Yahoo!® Autos review, but a couple of my favorites are on the back cover of the book. I was incredibly fortunate to have Jean Jennings and Jamie Doyle give endorsements. Being called “the definitive” anything is a great accolade, and Jamie has called it “the definitive father and son children’s book.”

Of course, Sir Stirling calling it “delightful” and “lovely” is pretty much the best reaction. Another one of my favorites is that of Ezekiel Wheeler, who said “I nearly forgot it was a children’s book.” As being somewhat ageless was a goal of mine for the book, that one meant a lot.

I also got a letter from New York Times Bestselling Author Loren Long a few weeks ago. He has illustrated books for both President Obama and Madonna. And most notably (to me), he’s written and illustrated his own beautiful series about a friendly and helpful tractor named Otis. I sent him a book and a letter shortly after the book came out telling him what an inspiration he (and Otis) were early in my process. I was looking for car books when I found Otis, and every night that I read it I thought, “I need to get busy. I want to give this a try.” It’s always amazing when someone that you respect turns out to be approachable, kind and supportive.

One of the most standout moments came at this year’s Scottsdale RM Collector Car Auction. When I was registering as a bidder, the very nice girl assisting me recognized my LRRC branding. She then waived my registration fee, noting that they at RM were all huge fans of the book. When you’re at an event as incredible as the RM, you’re already kind of abuzz, so that welcome was the icing on the cake and absolutely made my weekend!

Design, interview, little red racing car

How did you handle negativity that you’ve faced? Can you share some examples and how you countered it?

I think that anyone that’s done anything ambitious has encountered negativity. It’s how those not doing ambitious things cope. I’ve been fortunate though to have the positivity far outweigh the negativity on this—but there has certainly been some negativity.

By sharing the process “live” in social, I also got my share of messages and comments saying “here is what you should do,” or occasionally, “that’s a stupid idea.” The downside to this is that you have some garbage to sort through. The upside is that you also hear some good ideas. Regardless, this kind of input helps vet your ideas—and without doubt, some of the negative input made my work better.

Another kind of negativity is just a lack of support from folks you’d think would be supportive. I’ve handled this largely by staying focused on why I’m doing it. Or sometimes picking someone that is highly supportive and telling myself “Yes, but THIS person believes in it.” It doesn’t really matter who doesn’t acknowledge the book if Sir Stirling Moss, Knight of the British Order does, right?!

The thing is, whatever form negativity takes, it’s not your problem. Everyone that has built something has overcome something. Everyone has an opposition story. But only those that push through it have the possibility of a success story.

Were there times you had to step away from any part of the process?

So many times. I’ve never experienced as high levels of stress as I did during the course of this process—and I’ve been forced out of a multi-million dollar company I worked 30-hour days to found. I know it sounds crazy, but this children’s book (and the platform) is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The good news is, I’ve created a roadmap for future efforts.

Design, interview, little red racing car

Price and investment is always at stake with projects like these, can you share any real dollar investments you discovered were absolutely necessary?

There are two categories of spend here. One was for the integrity of the book and my intent. The other is as a business. For the book, accuracy was of the highest importance
to me, so I purchased a jewelry-like model of the Maserati 300s (hand assembled of more than 2,400 parts), as well as the definitive reference books on the car and the period. For the business, I founded my LLC, got a top IP attorney, filed for copyright, got my Library of Congress control number, and bought a pack of ISBN numbers. I wanted to create a brand too, not just a book. So the t-shirts, prints, etc. were important as well.

Talk about how Facebook helped to create engagement for your brand, and could you have done this without Facebook?

Facebook was a powerful tool for me but is much less of a tool now—I couldn’t do the same thing on Facebook again. Given how much harder it is to reach your audience on Facebook now, I couldn’t replicate the impact it had the first time around. So I won’t be trying as hard there going forward. It’s kind of like standing in a forest and shouting about the book.

Design, interview, little red racing car

Carpe Viam! appeared on the scene last year with the genesis of the book. What is Carpe Viam!?

Carpe Viam! Productions, LLC is my company that will publish and hold the rights to all books, apps, product designs and international contracts (yes, already). Those two words “Carpe Viam!” can mean a lot. Literally it means “seize the road,” so for a car guy, it really means “Enjoy the exhaust note while you grip that wooden (or leather) wheel and blast down a curvy canyon road.” It can also means “enjoy the path you’re on,” which is something that I very much try to do while building this brand. It can be exhausting building something from scratch, but it’s important to realize how fantastic the journey is too.

Where is it going?

I’ve done a great deal of work to become an actual publisher, so it is my plan over time to sign a small number of authors and illustrators whose work I believe in. I hope to be able to pull from all of the hard lessons I’ve learned along the way and help other projects with potential see the light of day.

Can you share one great moment of epiphany you had?

There were so many “aha” moments along the way, one being the inclusion of the car “Title” (complete with lien-holder area) in the inside cover, as well as the inclusion of the “Racing License” with every book. But one of my favorite epiphanies was a vision of both a text and visual concept simultaneously. It’s the page spread commonly referred to as “the long straight stretch,” and I’ve gotten many notes about it. The illustration starts with the boy driving his pedal car down the hallway of the house and transitions into the racetrack he's driving on in his imagination.

Design, interview, little red racing car

What has been your biggest disappointment?

I would really have liked to have sold 100,000 books in the first month... (Laughs) Honestly, it would be the non-response of some people that I had high expectations for.

I’ve reached out in a lot of directions. Some just to share what I was doing and some to ask for input or seek expertise—I’ve been surprised by some of the people that have not responded. But on the other side of that coin, I’ve been just flabbergasted by some really amazing people that I didn’t expect to respond who have been extraordinarily supportive and even become friends.

What has been your biggest surprise?

Probably the amount of passionate support and connection... and some of the people that it’s come from. That, and the friends I’ve made along the way. I’ve had the opportunity to connect with some truly amazing people. The level of international support (and immediate opportunity) continues to surprise me. Honestly, I dream big, so it’s probably more surprising to me not that it IS coming together, but how QUICKLY it’s coming together!

Can you share a moment of failure?

One of my biggest failures was the process. For example, I didn’t paginate the story soon enough, so I had fully vetted story ideas and illustrations that didn’t fit the final page count. I have very strong feelings about not having too much text weight per page, and I set out from the beginning to design the copy into each illustration. So this stuff couldn’t be forced, and I had to make some hard choices. I believe that the book is better for it, but it was very challenging at the time. Never in observing other books had I thought twice about page count, inside covers, title pages and copyright pages... but all of these choices have a lot of ramifications.

Design, interview, little red racing car

What was the single hardest part of the process?

The gravity that I was making decisions that would outlast this book. Seemingly simple decisions like format and book size were VERY hard for me, because I knew that with any luck, I was making decisions for a line of books, not just this one. That made the choices VERY difficult.

If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

Everything. (Laughs.) I’m doing all of the same kinds of work for book two but in a different order and with a whole new level of efficiency. Because it was my first book, I stressed a lot over decisions that didn’t matter as much as I might have thought. There was a lot of time invested in things that didn’t pay off and a lot of steps out of order. I have a page of notes that I made progressively over the journey that critiques my process and offers insight into doing better the second time around. I won’t forget most of those lessons, but just in case, I’ve copied them from The Little Red Racing Car ideabook to the new ideabook for The Greatest Race. I’m really happy to have a blueprint for this process now!

My boys love the book, even my daughter reads it—tell us what’s in store for girls and The Small Silver Speedster without giving up the farm.

From very early on, I’ve gotten notes from fathers who love The Little Red Racing Car and its father/son plot but have noted that they have daughters who share the car passion with them. Some have politely requested a father/daughter story and some have demanded it. So my upcoming book, The Small Silver Speedster, will feature a daughter who helps her dad pick up and prepare his racing car—an early Porsche Speedster—and is the inspiration to him when he’s on the track.

Design, interview, little red racing car

Some big things have happened in the last few weeks. Tell us about that.

A couple months ago, I sent off a proposal to Sir Stirling Moss that nearly kept me awake until I got the answer! I am very happy to say that Sir Stirling has agreed to collaborate with me on a book! It’s called The Greatest Race and will tell the story of his record setting 1955 win of Italy’s 1,000 mile race—the Mille Miglia. It’s an amazing opportunity tell an incredible story... and to collaborate with a legend and a personal hero of mine. Mercedes-Benz has also given me permission to represent their brand in the book and is offering the support of the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives.

Because of the support of Mercedes Benz and the relationships of my UK retailer The Signature Store, we have the possibility of a book launch for The Greatest Race at Mercedes-Benz World. If that happens, there’s a good chance that Sir Stirling and I could be sitting at a table together signing books. That’s one of those things that I was not picturing when I started working on The Little Red Racing Car a couple years ago!

Also in the last several weeks, I’ve signed two international contracts for publishing and translation of The Little Red Racing Car overseas, and another contract is nearing completion. One is with Grimm Press, for the translation and publishing of The Little Red Racing Car in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Grimm is also the publisher of some slightly more accomplished folks like Maurice Sendak, Nancy Tillman and Ian Falconer.

They were just awarded Best Children's Publisher of the Year in Asia at Italy's Bologna Children's Book Fair.

Thanks for speaking with us Dwight and for sharing more about your publishing and illustrative adventure! We look forward to seeing The Greatest Race and The Small Silver Speedster unfold.

Dwight's next book, "The Greatest Race" is now on Kickstarter. In week one, three tiers of rewards were already sold out. There are a few options left if you would like to snag a book signed by both Sir Stirling and Dwight—check out the project!

Some other hand-picked posts you might enjoy on our Design Blog:

The Little Red Racing Car: An Evolving Children's Book by Dwight Knowlton
Moonshine: The Personal Projects of DreamWorks Artists
An interview with Lincoln’s Director of Design Max Wolff

Steve Tansley

Steve Tansley

Steve is the co-creator of the goodfences.com web comic. He is a designer and illustrator of children's books and Sr. Interactive Art Director for The Lavidge Company. Steve's personal work can be seen at behance. He lives in Scottsdale with his wife, eight kids and dog Sooki. Catch his tweets at @stevejtansley or friend him on Facebook page.

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