Flashlight Press could also be called The Little Publisher That Could. Since the micro-press started five years ago, it has steadily published two to four 32-page picture books a year. Most recently, it printed 5,000 copies of I Need My Monster, about a boy who can’t sleep well when his ugly nighttime friend goes fishing out of town for a week. (Substitute monsters appear, but who wants one with nail polish on his claws?)
Based out of Jerusalem, Shari Dash Greenspan serves as the tiny company’s jack-of-all-trades. She acquires and edits manuscripts, collaborates with the illustrators and maintains Flashlight’s web site. “I don’t think the fact that I juggle so many aspects of the business is unusual in very small publishing houses,” Greenspan says. At her daughter’s suggestion, she even named Flashlight Press—after a child’s favorite way to read under the covers.
Though Greenspan lives in Jerusalem, Flashlight also maintains a Brooklyn office and finds the U.S. market to be better than Israel for children’s book sales. “Israel is only the size of New Jersey,” she says. “People have more of a library mentality here.”
“They’re kind of a hidden gem,” says Jeff Tegge, v-p of sales for Independent Publishers Group, the Chicago-based book distributor, which distributes Flashlight’s titles. “Being small, they don’t have a lot of inefficiency. And they can pay more attention to each title.”
Rather than expand too rapidly, Flashlight Press has typically stuck to two books a year. Gradually, it has increased its first print runs from 1,500 to 5,000, re-printing as needed. That conservative approach works well with its Jerusalem-based parent, Urim Publications, which publishes Jewish books for adults. “Until we get a big breakout book, we’re covering our expenses,” says Greenspan.
Originally, in 2002, Greenspan and Urim’s publisher, Harry Mauer, acquired translation rights to do Hebrew versions of Mem Fox’s Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge and Phillip and Hannah Hoose’s Hey, Little Ant. They contemplated a line of Jewish children’s books, but it didn’t work. “We got a lot of runaway latke stories,” she says. “We got a lot of Jewish stories that I just didn’t think would be marketable. In the end, publishing is a business.”
Independent booksellers, in particular, have responded enthusiastically to Flashlight’s titles. Diane Black, buyer and manager of Narnia Children’s Books in Richmond, Va., has put I Need My Monster on her “favorites” shelf and considers it a perfect and “funny” book for four- and five-year-olds. Still, in this economy, she ordered conservatively. “We don’t order a lot of anything any more. We order a few, and then reorder,” she says. She plans to take I Need My Monster to local school book fairs.
Flashlight's Greenspan (l.) with Simon
Von Booy, author of Pobble's Way,
scheduled for release in 2010.
Fortunately for Flashlight, its authors and illustrators tend to promote their books with gusto. Richard McFarland, the 73-year-old illustrator (and model) for Grandfather’s Wrinkles (2007), visits dozens of bookstores and libraries in the same red-suspendered outfit he wears in the book. “When I walk in the school, they recognize me,” he says. Arlene Lynes, owner of Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock, Ill., was pleased with McFarland’s visit to her store on the book’s publication. “I love being able to find quality books from independent presses,” she says. “That helps me set my store apart.”
Though she’s based in Israel, Greenspan works closely with her authors and her illustrators. Amanda Noll, who wrote I Need My Monster, credits Greenspan with suggesting that she add more characters to the story. (The picture book is a debut for both Noll and illustrator Howard McWilliam, an English political cartoonist.) The result: a parade of monsters who unsuccessfully try to fill in for the missing monster. “She was a great mentor,” says Noll, who sent Greenspan her story pitch over the Internet. Greenspan held onto it for consideration for nearly a year. “I’d gladly wait that long again,” says Noll, adding that she likes the way Flashlight focuses on “one project at a time.”
Flashlight’s books have also found success with schools and not-for-profits, such as the Michigan Fitness Foundation. In March, the small nonprofit, which does nutrition education in schools, sent first graders 100 book bags containing, among other things, Carla’s Sandwich (2004), written by Debbie Herman and illustrated by Sheila Bailey.The appeal? “It’s the message in it about trying new foods. It’s a very healthy attitude,” says Marci Kelly Scott, v-p of health programs for Michigan Fitness Foundation. She ordered the books through Tuesday Books in Williamston, Mich. “It’s all the little guys helping the little guys!” says Scott.
Because Flashlight lacks money for advertising, Greenspan interests teachers and librarians by submitting her books for inclusion on state
Grandfather’s Wrinkles illustrator
Richard McFarland dresses like
the grandfather on his book jacket, for bookstore visits.
recommended reading lists, and by always applying for awards. “If the teachers or librarians think it’s worth putting on a state list, it generates its own publicity,” says Greenspan. (She sends out about 200 review copies; IPG handles sales.)
The list strategy has paid off, with accolades ranging from Grandfather’s Wrinkles being included on Bank Street’s Best Children’s Books of the Year list, to a Borders Original Voices selection for Grandpa for Sale.
Although the library market has been good to Flashlight, Greenspan hopes that I Need My Monster, which Barnes & Noble bought, will be Flashlight’s “breakout book” in terms of the trade. That title will be followed this fall by I Always ALWAYS Get My Way by Thad Krasnesky, who served as a soldier in Iraq and is about to become an instructor at West Point; and two more picture books, That Cat Can’t Stay and Pobble’s Way, in 2010.
Can Flashlight survive and thrive in this economy? With I Need My Monster, more titles in the pipeline and a strong backlist, they think they can.