On August 27, Andrew Kolb uploaded a PDF of a project he’d been working on to his website. The 25-year-old Canadian illustrator wanted to break into children’s literature, so he had designed a picture book to go along with a favorite song: David Bowie’s melancholy classic, “Space Oddity.” Ten days, some 61,000 mentions, and one cease-and-desist notice later, Kolb has learned a lot about publishing in the age of the internet–and may just have launched the career he dreamed of.
Kolb had been working on the “Space Oddity” book since February, in fact, and had wrapped it up by July. Though it was, Kolb admits, “maybe not necessarily the warmest, cuddliest children’s book,” the song’s narrative and visual components had inspired him. And after all, doesn’t Charlotte (spoiler alert) die at the at the end of Charlotte’s Web? And doesn’t Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother get devoured by a wolf?
Kolb’s idea was to use the book as a calling card with editors and publishers, to show a select group of professionals what he was capable of. “It’s like getting any job,” Kolb tells Fast Company of children’s illustration. “You can’t get a job until you have experience, and you can’t get experience until you have a job.” His Bowie book–painstaking spec work, done without any concrete prospect of pay–seemed to Kolb the best way to break the vicious logic of that Catch-22. By July, he had started to get in touch with editors, but had not landed any assignments; “it’s a somewhat slow process,” he says.
Then, in August, Kolb was watching a documentary called Press Pause Play (subtitle: “A film about hope, fear and digital culture”). He was struck by an interview with Seth Godin, a marketer/entrepreneur who himself has sworn off traditional publishing. In the film, Godin made an argument about the power of sharing, and it resonated with Kolb. “I was already working on this book for self-promotional purposes, to get into the industry.” He remembers thinking, “Maybe it would be cool to share this with my friends.”
He wound up doing a lot more than that. The free PDF bounced its way into the remotest corners of the internet–far beyond the narrow realm of design and illustration blogs where Kolb suspected it might get traction. Kolb’s webpage got a fresh 90,000 views. In its viral success, the Space Oddity affair resembled another recent children’s book sensation–Adam Mansbach’s Go the Fuck to Sleep, which became a #1 Amazon best-seller before it was even released, partly due to a widely circulated, pirated PDF. (“I had no idea about Go the Fuck to Sleep,” said Kolb when I mentioned to him that it, too, had been available as a free PDF. Kolb said he had only seen the video of Samuel L. Jackson narrating the book.)
Of course, there was one major respect in which Kolb’s work differed from Mansbach’s. Kolb’s book was written by a famous rock star; his book’s text is entirely composed of the lyrics from “Space Oddity.” Kolb had actually reached out, in an admittedly unthorough way (a few emails fired off into the void) to the Bowie camp prior to posting the PDF, but had never heard back. By the middle of last week, with a wave of popular support, he was hopeful he might get Bowie’s people to sign off on a for-sale print edition. “Regarding leads I actually have a couple of super awesome ones set up,” a hopeful Kolb wrote me last Wednesday.
But a day or two after that, Kolb got an email from the music group holding the rights to “Space Oddity,” an email “in a formal and very legalese manner, saying this isn’t cool beans,” says Kolb. “It wasn’t the message I was hoping for,” he admits. Now, per this group’s request, Kolb has taken down the PDF and stripped all explicit connections to the Bowie song. Online, the cover image of the book, which had looked like this–
–now looks like this:
“PICTURE BOOK SET IN SPACE!” reads the revised heading to the blog post where Kolb originally posted Space Oddity.
That doesn’t mean that a print edition of Space Oddity is an impossibility. It’s just back to square one. Kolb is in talks with a few publishers who are interested in trying to negotiate with the Bowie camp. As with Go the Fuck to Sleep, there is an enormous appetite for this book in a print edition, further suggestion that the illustrated children’s book industry may be partially immune to the piracy fears that plague other parts of publishing. For every email Kolb got thanking him for designing the book to begin with, he got another ten asking how and when they could buy a copy.
For now, it’s best to gird yourself for the possibility that Space Oddity may never be published, sadly depriving you of the ability to turn that last page and whisper softly to your sleeping child, “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.” Regardless, there will still be a happy ending to Kolb’s own story, a story that suggests that spec work and free digital distribution can play a hugely important role in an illustrator’s career, and in illustrated publishing more generally. Kolb is in serious talks with a major Canadian book publisher about Kolb illustrating a few stories they think he’s be a good fit for. “I guess I don’t have a book out in bookstores yet,” says Kolb, “but we’re on our way. I’ve got no complaints at all.”
When the publishers called him up, they asked Kolb why he put out the Bowie book.
“I did this so I could get into this industry,” he said.
The publishers laughed, and said, “I guess it’s kinda working.”
Follow Fast Company on Twitter.
[Illustrations: Andrew Kolb]