by Ann Parker, Pima Community College, Tucson, AZ
For the month of January I will be exploring several independent book publishing companies that publish multicultural and even bilingual children’s books in the U.S. and that have received national attention for the quality of their books. These companies have not only avoided being bought out by a large conglomerate, they have even been able to successfully compete with some of these larger publishing companies in publishing quality children’s books that sell well. As I discussed in an earlier blog, it is often easier for these independent companies to publish books for “niche” markets such as books from within specific cultural viewpoints, mainly African-American, Asian-American, Native American, and Hispanic. The four companies featured this month are NorthSouth Books, Children’s Book Press, Lee and Low Books, and Just Us Books.
My earlier research focused on small publishing companies in the greater Southwest that published books from a multicultural point of view. I decided to follow up on this research with several other companies known for publishing quality children’s books. I was specifically interested in learning more about: the current state of publishing books that appeal to children from different cultural backgrounds in the U.S.; if the companies who publish them are finding an audience for their books, including not just parents and educators but children as well; how they market their books to appeal not only to children within the culture but also to all children; how they find authors and illustrators from a culturally authentic stance; and what they see as being the future for the interest in multicultural books for children. I developed a set of questions for each publisher and asked each company if one of their representatives would respond to them. The questions were:
- 1. Please briefly describe your company and the books you publish [I also visited their websites to learn more about their companies].
- 2. Has the original mission or vision for your publishing company changed over the years? If so, how?
- 3. What have been some of your best sellers? Why do you think they have been so popular?
- 4. Who is the audience for your books? Are there different audiences for different types of books (i.e., multicultural, non-fiction, bilingual)? Has the audience for your books changed over the years? If so, how? How do you envision this audience changing in the future?
- 5. What are some of the most effective methods you use to market your books?
- 6. What are the biggest challenges in publishing multicultural and/or bilingual books for children?
- 7. How do you find your authors and illustrators? What are the challenges you face in finding culturally authentic authors and illustrators?
- 8. Given the fact that many small publishing companies have been taken over by large conglomerates, what do you see as being the current state for independent book publishers of children’s books, particularly multicultural and/or bilingual books? What are the advantages that smaller companies have over the large companies? Disadvantages?
The following people responded to my questions: Heather Lennon, Director of Sales, Marketing, and Subsidiary for NorthSouth Books; Jason Low, Publisher, Lee and Low Books; Dana Goldberg, Executive Editor, Children’s Book Press; and Wade Hudson, President and CEO of Just Us Books.
In these days of cookie-cutter children’s books written by people more famous for being in the news than being a good author, independent book publishers continue to publish high quality, award-winning chapter and picture books that appeal to a broad range of children because they deal with issues that all children deal with, such as issues of belonging, of family, of new experiences, friendships, difficult times, and of the joys of simply being a kid. Smaller companies are also able to work more closely with authors and illustrators to ensure that their books are culturally authentic both in word and picture. The four companies featured this month are wonderful resources for parents and teachers who are looking for quality books that reflect our modern society and that kids will love.
This Monday, we hear from Heather Lennon of NorthSouth Books.
Heather Lennon, Director of Sales, Marketing, and Subsidiary
Q. Please briefly describe your company and the books you publish.
- HL: NorthSouth publishes primarily picture and board books for children ages 1-8. Our authors and illustrators are from all over the world—Europe, Asia, Australia, and the United States.
Q. Has the original mission or vision for your publishing company changed over the years? If so, how?
- HL: I think we’ve stayed true to our mission, which is to bring the best international authors and illustrators for children here to the United States.
Q. How does NorthSouth determine which international books to publish in English? How do you select authors/illustrators? Translators?
- HL: NorthSouth has a parent company in Zurich, Switzerland. Nord-Sud Verlag has a talented staff of editors, a dynamic publisher (Urs Gysling) and established creative relationships. Once Nord-Sud sets their publishing program, the US imprint evaluates the titles to see what translates to the United States. We look for books that would have an audience here in the US — whether that is at retail or in the classroom or libraries. We then take that list of books, work with a US editor and translators and designers here to create the US publication.
Q. What are the biggest challenges NorthSouth faces in publishing books that were originally published in other countries?
- HL: We definitely encounter a different sensibility when we are trying to put together our US list each season. To make a broad generalization, we don’t do well with ambiguity here, and many of the European texts are more open ended.
Q. What have been some of your best sellers? Why do you think they have been so popular?
- HL: The Rainbow Fish by Swiss author-illustrator Marcus Pfister is by far our best selling title and series. It’s a simple story of a special fish who learns how to be a friend and share. It can be read on many levels. It featured holographic foil accents, and when it was published almost twenty years ago, that broke new ground in design. That said, the foil also works as an integral design element. Lastly, though the book also sells well at retail, it is BELOVED in the school and library market. The Rainbow Fish is usually one of the first books children will have read to them in kindergarten.
- The Advent Storybook, illustrated by Maja Dusikova is a remarkably strong holiday title. Twenty four stories lead up to Christmas eve. Maja Dusikova is a brilliant Czech artist and her gentle illustrations really work with the simple, religious stories within the book.
- Dinosaurs?! written and illustrated by Lila Prap is a new bestseller for us. It was recently chosen as one of Parent’s Magazines Best Books of the Year. It’s a charming and funny non-fiction book, the subject is perennially popular and her artwork is just stunning. It’s the kind of book you have to pick up as you walk by.
Q. Who is the audience for your books? Has this changed over the years? If so, how? How do you envision this audience changing in the future?
- HL: Parents, children, teachers, and librarians. I realize that’s pretty broad, but despite the fact that we publish books from international authors and illustrators, we’re really not at all a niche publisher. All of the books we publish have general appeal.
- I find more and more we’re unafraid to do more upscale projects. We’ve had great success with Catherine Louis & Marie Sellier titles — My Little Book of Chinese Words is a small, 5×5 paperback with French flaps, over 100 pages of Chinese words, calligraphy, and images, priced at $17.95. It’s the kind of project that generally “can’t be done” but yet we’ve gone back to print on that book and it continues to sell nicely years later.
Q. What are some of the most effective methods you use to market your books?
- HL: Our best marketing happens at the American Library Association meeting. Our booth is always hopping. We try to always have fun give-aways, even if they are just posters and activity sheets. I feel that many of the larger publishers have stepped away from creating materials and printing them — there are a lot of disks and downloadables out there — but I think if you’re a small publisher there’s something to be said about giving your biggest proponents a gift and making it easy for them to use. Being at trade shows, making personal connections, really talking about the books with the people who can put them in the hands of parents and children makes the biggest difference.
Q. Given the fact that many independent publishing companies have been taken over by large conglomerates, what do you see as being the current state for independent book publishers of children’s books, particularly multicultural, bilingual and international books? What are the advantages that smaller companies have over the large companies? Disadvantages?
- HL: I think the best thing is to have a strong identity and sense of what you do best as a publisher. That’s the advantage of being small. We’re not an umbrella for many different imprints that all have a different mission — we are able to focus. And that lets us work on unique projects like My Little Book of Chinese Words. The disadvantage is just not having the big publisher budget to do everything we’d like to do! I’d love for NorthSouth to attend more conferences, create more materials, have a bigger website . . . but everything must be to scale, and I’m tremendously proud of everything we’re doing here in the States.
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