Before “Lean In” for women came “Soccer Sisters” for girls

One year before Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book pointed out to the world that girls who demonstrate leadership skills on the playground get labeled “bossy,” Carey Albertine and Saira Rao started a company to tackle that problem at its root.

The two women had plenty of leadership skills of their own. Albertine holds an MBA and worked as an executive recruiter, and Rao was an attorney and published author. But as new mothers, they lamented the dearth of media that didn’t present girls as “tomboys, princesses, super-chicks, sex objects, or vampires,” Rao says.

Friends since their University of Virginia undergraduate days, the duo thought of parlaying early-career broadcast experience into producing a children’s TV show about “real, bold, complex, and interesting” girl characters. But market research convinced them that book publishing was where they could have a greater impact. Disruptive technologies were opening the industry to new entrants, the e-book market was booming, and their target audience was the new generation of digital readers.

In March 2012, Albertine and Rao pooled their savings to start up In This Together Media with the mission to publish “great books about real girls” for the middle-grade and young adult audiences. Theirs are “stories where the protagonist isn’t waiting around to get kissed or, the other extreme, trying to be some sort of superchick,” Rao says. And they serve readers who don’t want to be patronized: “More satire, less vampire,” Albertine adds.

Their initial business model was to conceive characters and plots in-house and partner with authors who would write the stories. Now they also selectively consider submitted manuscripts. In This Together Media handles all editing, production, marketing, and distribution, and pays authors royalties. Amazon’s print-on-demand program keeps costs low, and enables them to sell paperbacks as well as e-books. They say the arrangement lets them produce high-quality content while offering better deals to authors than traditional publishers do.

Five months from launch, In This Together Media published its first book for the age 8–12 audience. Lily Out of Bounds, by Andrea Montalbano, is the first in a “Soccer Sisters” series, for which Olympic gold medalist Brandi Chastain is official spokeswoman. (“We just asked her,” Rao says.)

Their second book, Rebecca Munsterer’s Mrs. Claus and The School of Christmas Spirit, was Amazon's top-ranked children’s Christmas book in December. And the third, Playing Nice by Rebekah Crane, about a “good” high school girl who befriends a “bad” one, was published this year and has garnered 145 Amazon and Goodreads 4- and 5-star reviews.

In 13 months in business, they have been featured on the Today Show and invited to the White House to participate in a Girls Leadership and Civic Education conference. Albertine says that while the company is not yet cash-flow positive, all of the books are making a return on their investment and generating payments to the authors.

Yesterday, In This Together Media launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $30,000 to produce 10 new books by 2014. In under 24 hours, the campaign has achieved more than 25 percent of its goal. If successful, Albertine says, “This should really do it for a while. I think we can fund the business ongoing from revenues of books themselves.”

To be sure, the link between their mission and the nation's current bestseller is not lost on them. Their reward to Kickstarter supporters who pledge $150 or more? A signed copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.