Dragons always fascinated Debi Evans. The mysterious world of the mythical creatures sparked her interest as a child and when as an adult she spotted one rocking gently on its own outside a sweet shop in the south of England her imagination soared. "Oh look," she said to her three young children. "There's a dragon and it's about to fly away and have an adventure." Eight-year-old Olivia, Callum, aged six and even two-year-old Nathan begged her to tell them a story, but there were rock pools to explore and sandcastles to be built on the beach in the sleepy Devon town of Combe Martin where the family were on holiday and the story had to wait. To be precise, it had to wait 10 years.
"I promised my kids that I would write a story about it but we were on the way to the beach so we all just forgot about it," she says. Fast-forward to a book fair in Dubai where Debi was representing the UK publisher Child's Play. Callum, now 16, was helping his mother and idly inquired why he never got to hear the dragon story she promised to write. Debi takes up the story: "I was sitting at a book fair at the Emirates International Nursery School, which no longer exists, when Callum asked what happened to that story about the dragon. So I sat there and wrote a short story about it."
Little did she know that it would turn into what she describes as the "best-paid hobby I ever had". Today, she and her writing partner John MacPherson have published four books and sold more than 17,000 copies, and there are still more in the pipeline. They have a devoted fan base of about 1,000 children who belong to The Secret Society of Dragon Protectors and who regularly key in to the society's website for news of dragons that might be hiding in dragon-shaped objects right here in the UAE.
"Once you start looking around you will see that they are all over the place. For example, over the building at Dragonmart, then there's an ice dragon at the ski slope - it breathes ice for obvious reasons - and there are about a thousand dragons in China Court at Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai," she says. Evans, 48, arrived in Dubai 18 years ago with a three-month-old baby to join her husband Graham, who works in the food industry. She worked part-time for the children's book publisher, going into schools to give presentations and attending book fairs. During this time she noticed that there seemed to be fewer books for children in the eight-to-13 age bracket.
"I thought there was a gap in the market. I wanted something that nobody else had and I knew it was going to be difficult to get a unique product," she says. Four years ago she started work on the first dragon story and turned to Macpherson to illustrate it. "We were both Scout leaders and I knew John was brilliant at drawing. What I didn't know then was that he was into dragons and had a terrific imagination," she explains.
MacPherson, 41, from Glasgow, is the area planning manager for McDermott, the oil and gas fabrication company. He lives in Dubai with his wife Eleanor and their two children, Drew, 16, and Heather, 15. He says: "She sent me the short story and asked me to read it and draw a picture that would fit in. I also suggested a different ending. Then my mother-in-law, who used to be a children's book buyer for WH Smith, suggested a bigger book."
On a trip back to the UK, Evans tried to interest Child's Play in the concept. "It was all moving very slowly," she says. "So John and I decided to have a go at writing and expanding the story and producing a book between us. I hadn't done creative writing since I was at school," says Evans who spent a summer doing a creative writing course at Marlborough College in Wiltshire. So, what started off as a story to amuse the children began to take shape as an open-ended writing and publishing enterprise. MacPherson's work involves long hours and lots of travel, so the pair often communicate solely by e-mail and don't meet up for weeks on end.
"I told John I was going to write about this little boy called Angus who looked a bit like his own little boy and he was going to discover a dragon hiding in a dragon-shaped object. There's a Dubai-based dragon in the second book so the kids know there is a dragon in Dubai but where it actually lives will be revealed in book five," says Evans. "Angus is based on my son Nathan. I asked John to draw him but making him three years older. Amazingly, Nathan has grown into that boy."
The partnership is simple. First they agree on the synopsis, then Evans writes it and sends it to MacPherson. "He will cross bits out and rewrite and send it back to me. It takes four to six months to do a book. We have the same vision and we have agreed storylines for about five more books," she says. They take considerable liberties with history, weaving past events into the adventures. Students might be surprised to learn that the Great Fire of London might have been started by a dragon and members of the society know that St George was really a dragon protector, rather than a dragon slayer.
Once Evans and MacPherson had the first book written and illustrated, the pair set about trying to find a publisher. After receiving about a dozen rejections, they decided to do it themselves. "We wrote to a few publishers thinking we had done the hard work and that we were about to become rich and famous and got practically the same letter from all if them wishing us good luck but saying that they weren't going to pick it up. So we taught ourselves,"Evans says.
"We discovered that we could become the publishers by purchasing an ISBN number, so we bought a block of 10 for £100 (Dh6,000). You need an ISBN number in order to sell books in shops. Next we had to find a printer and we discovered Express Print in Dubai. But first we needed approval from the National Media Council. You have to take your manuscript into their offices at Al Qusais Dubai, then they read it and give you a print licence.
"Rather foolishly I said to John that if we get our books printed I would sell them. I undertook to go out into the schools. We had 20 or 30 boxes of them sitting in our spare room so there was a moment when I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew. But in three months I had sold the lot. "For the past three years I've been visiting schools and doing presentations, telling the children how we got into writing. I always end by telling them, 'And now I'm going to tell you the biggest secret in the world. Dragons are real. They are still alive and hiding among us.'"
Both felt they needed to involve their young readers, so MacPherson set about designing and establishing the website at thesecretsocietyofdragonprotectors.com. "I just made it up the way I would like a website to be. There are secret pages and it's designed for two purposes: one, to put all the information up there in case a publisher or agent decided to click onto it; the other to give information to and receive information from the kids."
Children get their own membership card and a listing on a world map located within the website. Visitors can also use the map to find where the dragon characters in the books are located. As a marketing idea it was decided to give a lump of "dragonore" away with each copy of the books. They sell for Dh45 in book shops. Dragonore is the magical substance that allows people to see hidden dragons. "Only children with imagination can see them," says Evans says.
For Evans and MacPherson it has been an interesting hobby that is beginning to pay off. MacPherson says: "Seeing the first book coming out of the printers was an emotional moment. Debi actually cried. That excitement and passion hasn't dwindled. The feedback that we get from the kids is tremendous so we are very much in touch with our fans." The first book, The Dragon's Tale, printed in December 2006 sold out of its first print run of 1,500 in just three months. The sequel, The Secret Society of Dragon Protectors - The Cor Stan, launched in April 2007 at Borders in Dubai was also well received, and the third, A Shadow in Time, followed in December 2007. Book four, The Secret Society of Dragon Protectors - The City Guardians came out in March last year, and Evans and McPherson have firm ideas for at least another five books in the series, not to mention a growing fan base in the 35 schools visited in the Dubai, plus some in England.
Evans says: "We are not trying to be JK Rowling, but we saw something together that we could produce and make happen. We are making a little money now. Considering we did it all by ourselves we're feeling quite pleased about that. The great thing is that we can make this work wherever we are. "What we have discovered is that everybody of whatever age is fascinated by dragons."