HALIFAX – Ask John Read about space and his face lights up.
Like an excited science teacher, he’ll start talking to you about the Sarsat program and Tardigrades rocketed into orbit. Before long he’ll haul out his laptop to show you graphs of his latest astrophysical calculations.
Read will be the first to tell you he’s “passionate about space,” which, of course, is a wild understatement.
But it was that passion (along with a keen business sense and an entrepreneurial streak) that ripped him from a cushy job at a Fortune 500 company and hurled him into an unlikely career as a children’s book author in Halifax.
Read says his story is one of “adapting culturally to a new world, learning how to thrive in it, and then learning how to escape it.”
That journey began, just after he finished a finance degree at St. Mary’s University, with a job offer from Clorox.
After months of preparation and practice interviews, Read started at the company as a junior accountant. He thought he had made it: the money was good, the job was cushy, he was essentially living and working in Silicon Valley.
But about a year in, his boss took him to dinner and told him he wasn’t doing so great. He seemed lethargic, like his heart wasn’t in it. That conversation, he says, taught him an important lesson.
“There’s an act of showmanship you need at a job at a big company. You need to play the politics and you need to make the right people happy,” he says.
So he started putting on a show, and for years it worked as he climbed the corporate ladder. But his heart was never really in it and in the background he was always, sort of, planning a way out.
Read says he was about five years in at Clorox when he discovered he was obsessed with space.
He bought a telescope. Then a bigger telescope. Then an even bigger telescope. Before long he was engrossed, volunteering at the Mount Diablo Astronomical Society four nights a week.
Looking for literature to feed his new passion, he discovered there was a gaping hold in the market for beginner astronomy books that were practical to use and easy to understand.
“You’re talking about a hobby dominated by old, retired engineers. But it’s a hobby that all the kids want to get into,” he says.
So he decided to write something for them. Over the course of three months, he researched and wrote an easy-to-understand guide for beginners with a small telescope. He self-published it and threw it up on Amazon with very little expectation.
“I wrote the book and I didn’t think it would be successful at all,” he says.
And for a while, it wasn’t.
The first year he sold only a handful of copies. But over a couple of years, sales started to grow “exponentially.” Then, about three years in, Amazon ordered about 4,500 copies to stock for the Christmas season.
“That’s when everything changed,” Read says. He got a royalty check for about $20,000, “and I’m like, I’ve gotta keep doing this.”
Although he was still excelling at Clorox, Read knew he wanted to work in astronomy. So he applied to the astrophysics program at St. Mary’s. Eventually, he was accepted.
“After I was sitting on that acceptance letter for a couple of weeks, I was like, ‘there is nothing in the universe I would rather do than drop everything, move to Halifax, and do astrophysics.’ So that’s what we did,” he says.
He and his family moved to Halifax, where John started working both on his degree and his business as an author.
Because make no mistake, for Read, being an author is a business.
“I hit a home run with my first book, but I think the reason is that I didn’t treat it like a book, I treated it like a solution,” he says. “A lot of potential authors think they can write a book and it will make money. It almost definitely won’t.”
Once Read’s book began to take off he went hard into research mode. He started advertising on Facebook, Google, and Amazon, testing what worked.
He even paid freelancers to translate his book, just so he could say it had been translated into 10 different languages.
He wrote more books and hired his wife, Jennifer, to do design work on them.
He calculated the ROI on all his ads, refined them, and dumped 10 percent of all the profits he made back into advertising. Essentially, he says, he brought big-business marketing to his two-person operation.
“The average children’s author doesn’t have a background in corporate finance,” He explains, “but it doesn’t scare me at all to drop 10 grand on marketing. That’s probably one of the things that makes me uniquely successful.”
Today, Read is just days away from completing his astrophysics degree. With help from his wife, he has now published eight books. The latest, 50 Animals That Have Been to Space, was published by the Halifax publishing house, Formac Publishing.