After Winning the Publicity Lottery: A Reflection on Rebranding, Momentum, & Creative Purpose
RUBY ROTH / WNW Member
The second children’s book I wrote and illustrated landed me on The Today Show, CNN, FOX, ABC, NBC, in Wired, Glamour, and hundreds of other media outlets. At age 29, the firestorm flurry of publicity that ensued provided unprecedented ground to stand on—the first solid evidence, proof to myself, of my professional capabilities. Requests and invites for TV and radio interviews, podcasts, newspaper and magazine articles, along with web features, blog posts, and reviews rolled in for months.
The night before The Today Show segment aired, anticipation stopped me in my tracks. This could be it. There was a chance I'd be a best-seller overfuckingnight—that's what HAPPENS when you make the first book of its kind and you land that kind of coverage…right?
Let me rewind. I’m an artist, author-illustrator, and graphic designer. In 2008, I was a few years out of college and teaching art at an elementary school. Inspired by my students’ questions about my vegan eating habits, I searched for a children’s book I might share. There were only a couple and the subjects were talking animals or talking vegetables—not what I wanted to read, neither to my inquisitive 7-year-old students nor my hardass 11-year-olds. I had discovered a hole in the market and the wild idea hit to combine my punk political activism with my art and create the books I wanted to read. It would be a dream perfectly realized—to create art with a purpose.
So I did. I wrote That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals and mocked up a spiral-bound dummy with black and white illustrations. Getting a publishing deal was a fight—veganism was not really a household term yet and the topic was a risk. But I found a ballsy friend to act as my manager, he cold-called and pushed, we used all our networking resources, I faced a bajillion rejections, and then we convinced the one interested-yet-hesitant publisher that the movement was only to grow and would, for sure, get big enough to garner an audience. This book would be important.
I didn’t mean to become a children’s book author-illustrator. I’ve always drawn naked chicks and girls with guns, my style was somewhere between Heavy Metal, Frank Frazetta, Moebius, Olivia, and Egon Schiele. But my books became firsts of their kind in children’s literature—a series of four non-fiction picture books that address the motives behind the veg movement: the emotional lives of animals, factory farming, the environment, endangered species, etc. I collected endorsements from Jane Goodall, Alicia Silverstone, John Robbins, Moby, and other best-selling authors and leading activists. The marketing was ideal and genuine—an “innovative” product with a clear purpose and inspiring backstory, created for a passionate (oft fanatical) niche demographic. The veg movement was taking off enough for the books to find, from the jump, an eager, welcoming, growing audience around the world—without any major media coverage. I was chugging along, on my way.
Cut to 2012, Matt Lauer holding my second book, Vegan Is Love, on The Today Show. This was it, the peak moment of my burgeoning career. In the pre-recorded segment, I had given the producers strong soundbites I was proud of. But my heart pounded with the possibility, in the next moment, of having my project humiliated and my name and character spun on a national scale.
They didn’t do exactly that. Shockingly, they represented me and my work fairly. But then, sitting next to Matt, live, after my pre-recorded segment played, sat a nutritionist and a child psychologist, there to discuss the “new children’s book…causing controversy and concern.”
Holy shit. Major media was neither going to celebrate nor trash my work, they were going to bring in opposing authorities and use me to spark debate and outrage.
The coverage exploded. The mainstream capitalized on the “controversy” of veganism for kids, while the small but mighty veg population caught wind and championed my arguments and my work. I got love letters and hate mail. I debated a child psychologist on FOX News, spoke on CNN, ABC, was covered by national newspapers and magazines, and even Perez Hilton picked up the trickle-down story.
The shine secured my role as a professional and a leader in my field, and made my work known amongst a niche demographic. But I never hit the best-sellers list, nor realized the farfetched dream of that financial reward—the market was so new, Facebook Pages were still just taking off, and Instagram wasn’t really a thing. The large audience I saw coming for my books didn't quite exist yet. It might have been different now?
I had been first at something, but sometimes that in itself is a double-edged sword—the way you pave grows after you. Nevertheless, I was incredibly proud, enormously appreciative, and felt utterly on top of the world. I had created something meaningful, something that made international headlines, and positioned me as an authority. It was an arrival. For all the vulnerability that comes with being an artist, I felt secure about a future.
And then one night, I was taking a shower.
As a fellow creative, you can imagine the immobilizing doubt and crushing fear that could creep between the cracks in one's confidence when, say, you're shampooing and suddenly you realize you may have just peaked at age 29 and will likely never, ever, EVER have a similar opportunity to showcase or sell your work on that scale again. And if that hadn’t blown you up, what would? What was I going to do now???
The low after the high of this project’s culmination marked a huge professional learning moment. First I realized how common and unspecial it is to experience lows between projects—and that given my typical artist’s disposition, I might expect this feeling to arrive over and over for the rest of my life. I’ve heard every kind of artist at every level of the game speak to this roller coaster between projects or gigs. And money never solves it, it just makes the stakes higher. Part of graduating to being a pro-level artist means anticipating the peaks and valleys and being ready for them; never skyrocketing too high, never going into a bottomless hole.
When the dust settled, I was in a little bit of a hole. To keep myself going despite my fears, I abided by the following realizations and they’ve kept me going, eventually landing me my fifth book deal, signed last year.
Dream projects are their own reward.
First, I acknowledged—by way of the smack of real life experience—that some projects are great successes even without the factor of financial reward. These books are forever first: they’re known, beloved, translated into multiple languages, and for now they’re still leading the way. But I’ll never live off of them. For a second, I was distracted/excited about that possibility. But it no longer bothers me because from the core of my heart, that was never the point of making them. Dream projects serve your very being, serve a purpose, serve the things you love and value. Anything else is icing on the cake.
Ain’t no masterpiece.
My role as an artist is to create, over and over and over again. I decided that moving forward, I wouldn’t mix up any one project with the highest of hopes—for my “best” piece ever, fame, money, recognition, awards. I maintain psychological homeostasis by setting my mind on longevity and the quality of a continuous line of good works, regardless of where they end up. No one project is going to make or break me. Masterpieces are ultimately about craft, not results, and if you love what you do, you’ll have a lot of them.
Plan on evolving and rebranding.
With my media presence, niche marketing, networking, and speaking engagements, I ended up pigeonholing myself into one (vegan) market by accident. I haven’t been much part of the fine art community, children’s book community, the illustrator community, the book designer community, etc. That’s just how my path rolled out—and how much can one person do at a time, anyway!?
In the last couple years, I’ve been pivoting, building up my personal art and design studio, the goal being to position what’s been the core of my business as, in fact, a branch of my creative house (a slight marketing conundrum when your range spans from nudes to ABC books—but whatever, it’s the truth). I’m transforming the “brand” I became known for into a “campaign” I’ll continue to grow, directing new audiences to a larger umbrella—me—instead of my cause. I’ve had two websites—my adult/design work and my vegan children’s merch and blog. Want to see something? It’s messy and honest and real: here’s site number one, number two, and the new site just beginning to combine them together—the URL will probably change in the end, and all URLS I own will direct to different areas on one giant site. I run two separate newsletters that probably can never be one. I’m not sure what I’ll do with my multiple social media accounts yet. I fretted over this transition for SO long, but I couldn’t even begin to fathom the right thing to do until I simply started executing. The umbrella “brand” is just starting to make sense to me, and I plan on tweaking it in real time until it’s right. It’ll be awhile.
Pivoting feels horrible and uncertain and can make you run yourself in circles instead of ever getting to a finish line. But here’s the truth—there is no finish line and most of us ain’t so big that changing directions would create an earth-shattering tectonic shift. No one cares what your URL or your logo is. You can change it, redirect it, do whatever you want. You’ll survive. You’ll evolve. In fact, that’s your job.
Keep a log of ideas.
After the major media hit, the weight of outdoing myself with a follow-up project was immediate. To relieve the pressure, I didn’t try to flesh out any one single project. Instead, every time I had even the faintest project idea, I started new Google Docs accessible from any nearby device and added thoughts to them whenever they arose. Zero timeline, zero pressure. And at some point, I was way further along in each project than I ever remembered. I am a pro—prepared when opportunity knocks.
In 2018, when my first publisher approached me wondering if I had anything new, I pulled out my Docs and found a manuscript I had started in 2014. I’d worked on it minutes at a time and now it was ready to pitch without having had any pressure to produce it on a timeline. It’s my fifth children’s book and my first foray into a topic outside of veganism, due out in Fall 2019. It’s called Bad Day and it’s about overwhelming feelings and how to overcome them. I don’t know what URL is going on the book cover yet. Maybe I’ll make a second website just for kid stuff? Do I have to? I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out.
I just hope, with all of my heart, that Bad Day is a #1 best-seller. Just kidding. It’s good, I know it is. I’m proud of it. Now on to the next.