It’s been more than a decade since Applewood Books published Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in a facsimile edition of the original, written by Montgomery Ward copywriter Robert L. May and illustrated by Denver Gillen, who worked in the company’s art department. Between 1990 and 2000, Applewood sold three million books and related material, including an audio edition of Ed Asner reading Rudolph, an edition with illustrations by Michael Emberley, and a Rudolph comic book. The Carlisle, Mass.-based press also published a sequel, Rudolph’s Second Christmas, illustrated by Emberley, and even created a small-format business book on The Life Lessons of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. After losing the license, Applewood was asked if it would like to publish Rudolph again, and is republishing a $14.95 hardcover facsimile edition, which will ship September 1.
“The whole book is so nostalgically simple and the story is so wonderful,” says Applewood president Phil Zuckerman, who contacted the May family in the 1980s about obtaining permission to reprint the book after reading a history of Rudolph. He quotes sociologist James Barnett, who said that May’s tale is “the only original addition to the folklore of Santa Claus in [the 20th] century.” The one change that Applewood has made to its reproduction of the book this time around is to add a gold sticker, drawing attention to the fact that it has been “brightening Christmases for nearly 75 years.” The layout, typeface, and drawings, including Santa nearly hitting a Tri-Motor airplane, are all the same.
First published by Montgomery Ward in 1939 as a giveaway to bolster Christmas foot traffic, Rudolph set the record for the largest first print run up till then: 2,365,000 copies. The 32-page book was given to children accompanied by a parent in more than 800 Montgomery Ward stores in all 48 states. Internally the retailer described it as “a happy combination of Ferdinand the Bull and The Night Before Christmas.
Since Rudolph was a work for hire, Montgomery Ward retained the rights, which it gave to May in 1947, which gave him the opportunity to license it and turn it into a commercial success. It took two more years to hit its stride, in large part because in 1949 Gene Autry recorded the song version, written by May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks. It went on to become the country’s number two Christmas song, second only to White Christmas. (In an interview in People three decades later, Marks said, “This is not what I wanted to be remembered for.” He preferred the lyrics for Tea for Two.)
Applewood, which is distributed to the trade by Ingram Publishers Services, is working with booksellers on in-store displays. Next year it will add more marketing muscle and possibly hire an outside publicist, according to Zuckerman, when Rudolph turns 75.