Author of the Month
Michael Stadther [May 2005]
Chosen by reviewer Beth McKenzie, MyShelf.Com
Philanthropist Michael Stadther is on a quest. In an effort to promote family values, environmental concerns, and teamwork, he has written, illustrated, published and underwritten the expenses for a book containing the clues for a $1.2 million treasure hunt as well as the prizes. While the hunt is what brought Mr. Stadther to my attention, his background, motivation and effect on me are why I chose to interview him.
Mr. Stadther and his wife Helen Demetrios are very successful software developers. Their first company, GDK, released a mainframe international banking system in 1982. I was taking computer classes at the time and still using punch cards. The very first PCs were in our school offices and they were glorified typewriters. The Stadthers’ second company, Frustum, was the provider of a foreign exchange trading software and was sold in 1996. Now here comes the interesting part. Instead of retiring quietly in his mid-40’s and focusing on himself, his hobbies and his collections, Mr. Stadther chose to reflect and do something positive for our world. He has personally made something beautiful for beauty’s sake and is sharing it with the rest of us. He has commissioned other beautiful objects to share as well; just seeing a picture of the firefly or caterpillar makes me smile. And above all other things, he has made my heart race with excitement!
You see, I thought that I knew the location of one of the hidden treasure tokens. I spent 2 days in utter disbelief, halfway planning the drive to the location. I spent another day talking to a friend with her saying, “What have you got to lose besides time?” I finally made the trip, heart pounding all the way and getting lost twice. Once I got where I thought I should be, every time I found an indicator I had to stop and breathe deeply. After about an hour of looking in bushes, under gravel, behind the garbage can, in the lamps and even in the grass, no token. Do you know what? I wasn’t disappointed. I took pictures of the area to bring home and try again. That night when I was laying down for sleep my last thought was-“the storm drain!”
Aside from giving us the fun of playing the game and allowing us to experience the beauty of the jewels, Mr. Stadther is also helping the environment by donating the proceeds from the book and a cash equivalent for any jewels not claimed by the end of 2007 to various environmental charities.
There are twelve jeweled insects shown in the book and a solid rock crystal doth (read the book) on the web page, but I think that they have miscounted. Pictures, puzzles and word games do not lead you to the last jewel; and it is this most vibrant jewel that made me want to interview Mr. Stadther. You only have to look into the home of Mike Stadther and Helen Demetrios and you will find it; you will find Love for Humantity, the greatest jewel of all.
you for spending time with me for this interview for the May 2005 Author
of the Month page on Myshelf.com. On of the things that brought you to
my attention, besides the treasure of fabulous jewels is that you have
successfully transitioned from a very technical and structured career
into an artistic field, something I hope do myself one day. Congratulations!
Thank you for spending time with me for this interview for the May 2005 Author of the Month page on Myshelf.com. On of the things that brought you to my attention, besides the treasure of fabulous jewels is that you have successfully transitioned from a very technical and structured career into an artistic field, something I hope do myself one day. Congratulations!
Beth: I read in another interview that you have been interested in treasure hunts since you were a small boy digging up your grandmother’s yard. What do you think gave you that interest and why has it survived so long?
Mr. Stadther: I think every kid thinks about finding pirate treasure, at some stage in life. As a young man read I read the Kit Williams book, Masquerade, and the interest transitioned from finding treasure more into How do you make a puzzle book? and How do you create a puzzle for 100 million to 200 million people? Combined with real treasure, the game is very appealing.
Beth: Do you think there is a link between this interest and being a good computer programmer?
Mr. Stadther: Yes, laying out a business problem for programming is very much like puzzling.
Beth: You’ve had something happen to you that doesn’t happen to aspiring authors very often. While most struggle to get noticed, in the space of a month you have had not one, but two books released.
Mr. Stadther: And that’s unfortunate.
Beth: Why? How is it unfortunate?
Mr. Stadther: It is unfortunate that more people are not published and publishers are not able to accommodate a wider variety of authors.
Beth: Which lead me to my question: how did traditional publishers react to your submissions and why did you finally choose to publish it yourself?
Mr. Stadther: They hated it. I was rejected by about a dozen big publishers. Their comments ranged from simple notes that stated “It’s not what we are looking for” to lengthy letters detailing the faults. Some just hated everything about it, the drawings, the story, the theme, everything.
Beth: It is a popular notion among authors, both published and aspiring, that more good books are rejected by mainstream publishers because they don’t fit into the established money-making mold than are released by all of the publishing houses combined.
Mr. Stadther: It is not just the money-making mold. This was a very complicated project: A Treasure’s Trove is an illustrated kids book with a grown up tale and an ecological theme. Publishers are very busy and didn’t have time to listen and put all the things together. And it was a risky project; I have no complaints about the decisions made by the publishing companies. The only thing that could be done is to provide them another model for how to choose the books they publish and that would be very difficult.
Beth: Have you considered publishing other non-traditional books?
Mr. Stadther: Absolutely! Our new business will be 2 things. The first is a creative development lab for highly illustrated, cerebral, children’s and adult books. Think of it like a Pixar for books, putting out more Treasure’s Troves every year.
The second is a general concept shop: Everybody Gets Published. For example, if a Tom Clancy walks in with something we can probably cut him an advance check and publish him. In another example, if an author brings a book that isn’t so good, but the author really wants to see it published and can put a little money toward it, it will still be seen, and if we were wrong and it sells, we’ll start cutting those checks.
Beth: Ebooks are an under-exploited opportunity. They are currently just white paper and black ink scanned to the screen. They’re boring.
Mr. Stadther: For me, I won’t really enjoy ebooks until I can see the pages turn. We see ebooks as a coming industry that will blossom more when hardware is a little more friendly to ebooks, and that isn’t very far down the line. We essentially plan to come out with a DVD book of A Treasure’s Trove. Instead of a movie, it will be a book. You will be able to see the pages of the book turn, hear the story, the symphonic background music, and follow along with the text. It may be like the old follow-the-bouncing-ball songs were.
Beth: Have you considered mentoring aspiring authors?
Mr. Stadther: No we haven’t, but it is certainly something we would consider for the future. We are considerably rich in ideas and opportunities right now. We want to develop a team of writers, authors, idea developers, editing, copy editors, the team that can work with a creator on a project.
A book like A Treasure’s Trove takes thousands and thousands of hours to create and publish. It will only be improved when there are teams of talented people focused on it.
Mentoring certainly something to follow up on.
Beth: A Treasure’s Trove is currently #281 on the Amazon.com sales ranking chart. How does that translate into number of books sold?
Mr. Stadther: It doesn’t. It reflects how fast a book is selling, not how many. You could sell 100,000 copies over a period of 10 years and never make a best sellers list.
We’ve been #1 or #2 on the New York Times Best Seller list, the Times Weekly, Publishers weekly about a dozen weeks.
As far as sales go, in the first four months we’ve sold about 400,000 paperbacks, 30,000 hardcover, 25,000 audio and about 130,000 of the companion puzzle book.
Beth: How many of these people do you think are actively seeking the treasures?
Mr. Stadther: There are lots of kids looking, and lots of adults arm-chair working on it, maybe a few thousand people, between 10,000-30,000. Out in the field, less than a thousand. Maybe a couple hundred.
Beth: Do you think that the story or the hunt is having a greater affect on the public?
Mr. Stadther: It is kinda split. The story appeals to a certain type of person and the hunt appeals to certain type. I get a lot of compliments from teachers of 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th graders, about how well written the story is; not to say that I am a good writer, but they like that the story is written in active voice, without jargon and no vernacular. I also don’t write down to kids. If I want to say “taciturn”, I say “taciturn” and add a few other adjectives to put it in perspective. I wrote a story that I liked and it just happens to be a story that 9-11 year olds like as well.
Beth: Is the story going to become part of popular culture? I have already met a cat named Kootenstoopit.
Mr. Stadther: I have no idea, and I would be humbled if it were.
Beth: Part of my research for our discussion was to read the message board attached to your official website, atreasusrestrove.com . I have seen your postings there clarifying the meaning of “a day’s drive” and announcing the crystal Pook. Do you pay close attention to the list and if so, what kinds of things do you watch for?
Mr. Stadther: Not as much as I used to, I have somebody who does that now. I have done interviews on other message boards. I can’t respond to all of the messages from there and I spend a couple hours a day responding to my personal email.
Beth: Was there ever a time in the creative process that you looked at the many pictures you had completed and said, “Oh boy, what have I started?” or “Now I really do have to finish it”?
Mr. Stadther: Almost every day, any number of ways. It was a lot of work, and it was secret. I couldn’t tell my wife, or my artist’s assistant.
Beth: Totally secret? You didn’t have a staff that was sworn to secrecy?
Mr. Stadther: I chose not to do it that way. I did all of the puzzles, all the Photoshop work, hid all of the tokens myself. It was a gigantic effort, and I am the only person who knows where the tokens are, how to find them , what security precautions are taken for which tokens, everything, Of course it is all documented and locked away in a safe.
Beth: What artists have influenced your paintings?
Mr. Stadther: Arthur Rackham, an early 20th century illustrator. I collect his illustrations and his original artwork. I also found inspiration in Angel Domingues, a contemporary artist with a similar style.
Beth: Did any authors influence your fairytale?
Mr. Stadther: No, I stayed away from everything that was even close to it.
Beth: “A Treasure’s Trove” is unique for an environmental lesson. You let the story play out the lesson and have not included the standard lecture pointing a finger at large industry as a greedy, heartless monster. In fact, you have made the bad guy, Rusful, as much a victim as the insects he captures. He was an apothecary, he was ambitious, he became contaminated, and he was ashamed. Is there a particular message that you want to make sure comes across to the readers?
Mr. Stadther: I tried not to be preachy; nothing makes you lose your credibility and audience quicker than being preachy. Kid’s books, movies, cartoons, games, all tend to be extremely preachy. I’m sure it is well intended, but they will take a half hour cartoon on litter and say “Timmy is a litter bug and he is bad, so don’t be like Timmy”. It is just so heavy-handed. Everybody is able to understand and read between the lines. My purpose was not to preach, it was to expose the problem.
Beth: The proceeds from this project are being donated to the various environmental charities. Why did you choose these organizations?
Mr Stadther: The two organizations we are looking at right now are The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club. Both are a-political, and macro in view. The are interested in cleaning the air, reforestation, and are not focused on a puddle in somebody’s back yard. People are as important as the environment, and we need to find a way to accommodate both.
We also want to get into the universities and provide grants for people who are working on things like cleaning the air, or cleaner, alternative fuels.
Beth: Are you pleased with the result of the project so far?
Mr Stadther: Astounded! Our original press run was 40,000 books, after I appeared on the TODAY Show we got orders for over 100,000 books. We have far exceeded our original expectation.
Beth: Would you consider doing another treasure hunt in the future?
Mr Stadther: Simon and Schuster has approached us about doing a worldwide treasure hunt, and we have entered into a general agreement with them. There are two conditions that have to be met before I want to go forward with it: This treasure hunt has to have ended, and people have to have been satisfied with the conclusion.
Beth: I understand that you have sold the movie rights to Cruise Wagner. Are they planning to actually make a movie?
Mr Stadther: They did buy the rights and it is up to them whether to make the movie or not. I understand that they do intend to make one at this point.
Beth: Before or after the hunt is finished?
Mr. Stadther: I don’t know. Like I said, they bought the rights, so it is up to them.
you for spending your time with me, and thank you for this exciting and
creative book. I have spent hours puzzle solving, driving, pushing around
leaves and playing with Kootenstoopit. I expect to spend hours more.
In reviewing this engaging book you have to look at the six distinctive elements: the story, the illustrations, the quest, the publication, the jewels and the purpose.
The story has all of the elements of the classic hero epic. An Epic Hero performs brave deeds and protects his people, and it is that ideal that helps Pook risk all to protect Zac and Ana. Many times the hero’s brave deeds involve quests, or long difficult journeys hunting for a rare treasure, or a kidnapped princess. For Pook it is staying out after dark; no matter how afraid he is, and not leaving Zac’s side. Epic heroes sometimes fight human beings, but they also battle monsters and spirits. Often the hero's enemy will suggest a trade and then try to cheat. An epic hero can win the day by fighting hard, behaving honorably, and protecting the innocent; the very way that Pook protects Zac from the blight. The hero must be tested by facing death and putting the welfare of others before of his own needs. The story has action, adventure, magic and a happy ending.
The illustrations are rich and brightly colored. You can’t just look at them because you quickly become enthralled the detail and the patterns. Every spare space in the book is filled with trees, flowers, insects, and Pickensrooters. The fairy folk are charming characters and the doth a lovable and loyal friend. Some of the frames are dark and bitter, filled with monsters and demons; but there are bad guys in the forest so they show up in the pictures. Think of Judy Garland facing the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. It is scary and there is a sharp contrast between that and her Technicolor greeting from the Munchkins.
The quest is what all the fuss is about. I am not impartial here; I have been trying to find a specific token that I believe is hidden nearby. I have no doubt that I will find it unless somebody else beats me to it. It is not a simple or a short quest, although the clues that put you on the trail are easy to recognize once you start focusing on your surroundings instead of the overall landscape. The puzzles are a tougher than the clues and tell you how to interpret what you find and where to go next. The adrenaline surge from finding the next clue, more than makes up for whatever kind of day you have had to that point. While it’s not an original thought, I know from experience that a bad day treasure hunting is much better than a good day at work!
The publication and format of the book play an important part in the total package. Some reviewers have criticized the use of certain words or the lack of professional editing that would have corrected spelling errors and oddly turned phrases. These people do not have on their treasure hunting hats. The author has admitted that irregularities in the text may flag clues. The most popular adjectives used to describe the artwork is “amateurish” and “cartoonish”, which puts the pictures in “A Treasure’s Trove” in the same category as the images embroidered on the Bayou Tapestry. People focusing on the book and seeking to decode the pictures have discussed the direct influence of Albrecht Durer and Leonardo DaVinci found in the paintings.
The jewels are beautiful and inspiring creations, obviously anyone would be proud to own one if they can afford to. The least expensive item is the solid rock crystal doth which is appraised at about $3400 dollars. This is more than my car is worth. The most highly appraised jewel is the spider at $450,000, which is greater than the value of my house, my parent’s house and my sister’s house combined. The only real choice that the average American has is to take the cash substitution instead of the jewel. The insurance, the taxes, the ability to appropriately store and protect the item, all of these concerns make owning the jewel itself cost prohibitive for the vast majority of the target audience. Of course this way everybody wins, I just hope I get to hold an object of such exquisite beauty and craftsmanship in my hand once before I accept my reward for finding it.
There are both material and spiritual purposes behind “A Treasure’s Trove”. Materially, the proceeds from the book and its associated paraphernalia will be donated to various environmental charities. These charities are dedicated to the preservation of plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive. Spiritually, “A Treasure’s Trove” is about getting you and me outside, away from the computer and the television, and encouraging us to look our surroundings in an abstract, appreciative way. Trees become hands and giant snails, rocks become doths, bushes become lovers and statues point the way. You will experience the child-like joy of discovery, revel in the beauty of the forest and at some point wonder how on earth somebody could leave garbage there. Transcendence occurs when you start taking out the trash.
2005's Honorary List