Mom Fills Niche In Kids’ E-Book Market

By Kimberly Pierceall
The Orange County Register.

Where there was a need, there was mom Calee Lee. She started Xist Publishing, her Irvine-based digital publishing company, in 2011 after she was hard-pressed to find a decent digital children’s book to read to her then-4-year-old daughter Audrey.

“I said, ‘Well, I’ll make you one, honey,'” she said. Three years later, Lee has published more than 180 titles as Xist Publishing and turned Audrey’s old playroom into a home office in Tustin.

Wanting to focus on stories that could be an alternative to the traditional princess fairy tales and to produce books without game-play distractions, Lee based one of her first books on an earlier trip to the Mediterranean country of Cyprus with her family.

There, they heard the story of Queen Helena, who traveled the world by herself and populated the island with cats to control the snakes.

Enlisting a graphic artist, she had her illustrator and title, “The Queen and the Cats: A Story of Saint Helena.”

By Christmas 2011, the Kindle Fire was a must-give gift and iPads were becoming ubiquitous. Lee said her children’s books took off among families who wanted tablets to be a part of their lives, and not in the “Angry Birds” kind of way, she said, referring to the popular video game app.

“We grew really, really fast in 2012,” she said.

Children’s book sales, both print and digital, account for about 7.5 percent of the $29 billion book publishing industry, according to a February report from IBISWorld.

Overall, the $1.5 billion market for digital e-books dropped a bit in the past year because young-adult novels remain more popular in print, according to a report from The Associated Press.

But in a year’s time, the percentage of e-reading children younger than 13 went from a little more than half, to two-thirds, according to studies published by PlayCollective and Digital Book World in January this year and last year.

Of those children, 92 percent read a book on a digital device (tablets being the most popular) at least once a week.

Parents who were surveyed revealed that 54 percent of kids asked for an e-book version of a book that they already had in print form, according to the study.

Lee, 31, grew up in Orange County, attending Capistrano Valley High School before studying dramatic writing at New York University and earning a master’s degree from Cal State Fullerton.

With a storytelling background but not so much publishing, Lee has worked hard to befriend retailers and libraries, offering a lower-cost alternative without skimping on the quality other bigger-name publishers might offer.

It’s one thing to self-publish a text-heavy romance novel with a built-in population of readers searching for new titles.

It’s another to publish children’s books with engaging stories and high-quality illustrations, all formatted depending on whether it will be read on a phone, a tablet, a Kindle, a Nook, an iPad or anything else that holds her digital books.

Her books are available for purchase on, and iBooks and through OverDrive, the e-book rental program used by the Orange County public library system and many others.

While the company is digital first, it does print most of its titles. The digital versions are usually $5.99 while printed versions — soft or hardcover — cost $8.99 to $18.99.

And her vetting process is strict. She accepts several hundred submissions from storytellers and illustrators a year, but doesn’t move forward with 95 percent of them, she said.

“I’m looking for quality, for a story that grabs me,” she said, adding that she has to keep a vigilant eye on stories that might borrow an idea or violate a copyright.

Other titles written by Lee or a cadre of authors and illustrators who get royalties rather than an advance include storybooks with diverse casts of characters, a secret-agent mom and important women in history who had been falsely accused of witchcraft.

The influence of Lee’s Greek Orthodox Christian background is evident in some, too.

Before the flood of submissions, though, the first illustrator Lee reached out to was Brenda Ponnay, a popular mom blogger she had befriended about two years before launching the publishing company.

Ponnay hadn’t illustrated a children’s book before, but she did have a cartoon alter ego — Secret Agent Josephine — and an eye for colorful designs and characters.

A handmade set of flash cards Ponnay sold on crafting marketplace inspired one of Xist’s first books featuring Ponnay’s Josephine.

Now, when Ponnay’s not designing corporate logos, crafting, blogging or making custom life-size cutouts for her other business, Metta Prints, the Irvine illustrator is coming up with the next adventure for two of her characters, a timid owl named Little Hoo and her alter ego secret-agent mom.

“It’s kind of a hobby,” she said of book publishing, albeit a nice-paying hobby, she added.

And it has been a hobby that has had a learning curve. When she began planning her first Secret Agent Josephine adventure, the young sidekick daughter didn’t play as big of a role. That’s when she made her daughter Helena — or rather, “Bug,” as she’s called online and in books — a more prominent part of the plot.

“They want to read a book about a kid. They don’t want to read a book about a mom,” Ponnay said.

“She has really good ideas, too,” she said of her daughter, who inspired Little Hoo’s next adventure at the beach. Her life often influences what Ponnay will include in a book. “But she’s growing faster than I can draw.”

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