HELENVILLE — As a child, Kristen Emily Behl loved creative writing, but as she approached adulthood, she thought she had to choose a “practical” career path.
She found her chosen career as a physical therapist to be both stable and rewarding, but it lacked that creative spark.
It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that Behl realized what was missing.
“I always had this idea that someday I’d write a book, but I’d put it on the back burner, to the extent that my husband didn’t even know that it was a dream of mine,” said the Helenville resident.
Thanks to the brakes the pandemic put on “the daily grind,” Behl actually found herself with time to write — and beyond that, she discovered a passion not only for producing her own books but for helping others create their own.
The result is a new book imprint, “Goose Water Press,” through which Behl has published four of her own books and one by another author, with additional books by other area authors in the works.
Behl’s first book came out of a series of letters she was writing to a friend who was expecting a baby. Behl pledged to write one letter per month to give her friend some idea of what to expect, sharing her own experiences and offering Christian encouragement, funny stories and advice.
This project just took off, and as the months progressed, the letters got longer and longer.
Encouraged by her friend, Behl got the idea of turning the letters into a book.
Then the pandemic hit. At the time, Behl had been working at the Watertown Regional Medical Center’s juvenile outpatient clinic, but as medical facilities shut down “non-emergency” care to focus on COVID-19, three workers at the clinic were temporarily laid off, including Behl.
She welcomed the time at home with her children, age 2 and 3 1/2, but found that more than ever she really needed a creative outlet.
She found herself writing children’s stories in her head, then began looking into all of the different possibilities for getting published.
She researched various approaches, from traditional publishing to all different types of self-publishing, pouring herself into the research for a full year.
“There’s a lot of stigma to self-publishing, but actually a lot of authors are doing that now, because traditional publishing companies are accepting fewer and fewer manuscripts,” Behl said. “They only want to pick you up if you are an established author.
“The process is long — most authors have to wait for years before they see their book in print — and then the publisher takes most of the profits,” she added.
And traditional means of self-publishing heavily benefit the publisher over the author.
“Even if you sell a ton of books, you only take home 7 to 10 percent of the profit on them,” Behl said.
Eventually, she decided not only to self-publish but to start her own publishing company, making use of print-on-demand technology.
“I spent a lot of time researching the process, finding out how to connect with great illustrators, how to develop a contract, etcetera,” Behl said.
Overseeing her own publishing process gave her 100 percent control over her own product, which she felt was important, given that her whole reason for publishing was to produce books with wholesome, Christian content that families could trust.
“I want to use my books to build up families,” Behl said.
She knew she had to go into the process with a business mindset, taking charge of the production and marketing.
In 2021, she established Goose Water Press as her own business.
In quick succession, she cranked out her pregnancy advice book, “Letters to the Expecting Mama,” and three books for children, all of them up to mass market and library standards.
Her best-seller is her first book, “I Love You More than Mountains,” which uses the stunning landscapes of America’s National Parks to show how big the love is between parents and their children.
That book grew out of Behl’s family’s real travels and their enjoyment of the great outdoors.
“My older child had been to like 20 national parks before the age of 4,” Behl said.
The illustrator, from Ukraine, used the family’s own photos of the stunning scenery as a basis for her art, following the dimensions of the photos closely but giving the whole thing a watercolor look.
Behl’s second children’s book, “Upendi, a Tale of Hope in Africa,” is winding up in a lot of classrooms.
This story also came out of personal experience.
“My brother-in-law is South African,” Behl said. “He has since moved here, but he used to manage a safari company introducing tourists to the wildlife where he lived in Tanzania.”
Behl said she had the chance to see this African wildlife in person when she visited the Dark Continent in 2016 and was very impressed.
“It was like watching the Discovery channel right in front of you,” Behl said. “I also had the chance to get to know some of the local people on that trip. It was very eye-opening and humbling.”
When the pandemic started, tourism just stopped, which left the local villagers with no means of making money and forced some to turn to poaching the endangered animals in order to make ends meet, she said.
“He said that the syndicates were offering $300, the equivalent of a month’s pay, for these endangered animals,” Behl said.
In this book, she puts out the call to preserve this unique wildlife and the locals’ way of living.
She also has written a humorous children’s picture book “The Messiest Eater on the Block.”
“I didn’t start with the attempt to publish other people,” Behl said.
That’s not what she had in mind, she noted, but God apparently had other plans, putting her in the path of another aspiring writer, Linda Teed of Fort Atkinson.
Soon other opportunities presented themselves, and Behl connected with other aspiring authors whose works she agreed to print, offering editing help, connecting writers to professional illustrators and seeing them through the process to make their books come out the way they want.
As a hybrid publisher, Behl takes an up-front fee, then splits the proceeds 50-50 once the author recoups that initial investment. The authors handle their own contracts with illustrators, though Behl is happy to hook people up with illustrators she knows and trusts.
Though the continuing pandemic has put a damper on some of the traditional marketing opportunities, Behl has had a few chances to get out in the local community to promote her books, appearing at Watertown’s Literatus and Co and at the Friends of the Johnson Creek Public Library holidayfair.
She also has a big presence online, on Facebook and Instagram as well as her own company’s website.
Her buyers include a lot of home-school families and educators who are looking for quality, family-friendly reading materials that align with their religious values.
Upcoming projects include two more books in Behl’s young mom series: “Letters to a New Mama” and “Letters to a Toddler Mama,” and the advice book “Traveling with Tots,” as well as works by three other authors, including a home -school mom from Illinois and an 18-year-old from Waukesha who is writing a book aimed at empowering children with disabilities.
“The whole process has been fun for me,” Behl said.
Seeing her own ideas from creative sparks all the way to a published book was in ways like bringing a child into the world. Now, as a publisher, she’s essentially a “midwife to stories,” seeing others through that creative process to realizing their dreams.
In the past few months, Behl has returned to her “day job” in physical therapy, but is determined to continue both writing and publishing.
“My biggest takeaway from this whole experience is that I don’t have to do just one thing,” she said. “I can be a medical professional and a mother, a writer and a publisher.
“This venture has really opened up doors for me,” she said. “It has been uplifting, a breath of fresh air — and it has also helped me achieve a work-life balance that really keeps me grounded.”