The name of the press that publisher Judy Galbraith founded, Free Spirit Publishing, was conceived, she said, because she “wasn’t exactly sure” in what direction she wanted to go when she launched it to self-publish two books in November 1983. Today, with more than 13 million books sold, Free Spirit is the leading publisher of self-help books for children and teen readers, as well as for their parents and educators. There are 300 Free Spirit titles in print, as well as 75–100 non-book products, all designed to fulfill its mission of providing children – from toddlers to teens – with the tools they need to achieve success.
The Minneapolis company has come a long way since its beginnings. “I knew I wanted to help young people navigate life,” Galbraith recalled of her entry into publishing. “It didn’t make sense to me that you’d go into a bookstore and find hundreds of self-help books for adults and nothing for kids.”
A former classroom teacher, Galbraith had not long before received an M.A. in guidance and counseling for gifted children and teens. “I was frustrated, because I’d done all this work on my thesis, and it wouldn’t help anyone,” she said. So she published her master’s thesis in two volumes, which became Free Spirit’s debut releases: The Gifted Kids’ Survival Guide and The Gifted Teen Survival Guide. Both books are still in print and have sold a combined 300,000 copies. Galbraith has since written a number of other books published by Free Spirit: When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answers; What Kids Need to Succeed, which, with 655,000 copies sold, is one of the company’s top two bestsellers; and What Teens Need to Succeed.
Free Spirit, which has 23 employees (a 24th will be hired soon), currently releases 25 titles each year, from board books to books for teens. Its bestselling title, Hands Are Not For Hitting by Dr. Martine Agassi, illustrated by Marieka Heinlen, has sold 626,000 copies in paper and board formats, and 39,000 copies in bilingual Spanish paper and board formats.
While domestic sales, Galbraith said, have held steady for the past few years, with almost 13 million books total sold to date, exports of English-language books were up 37% in 2012 over 2011 (the press says that it’s too early to predict 2013’s figures) and foreign-rights licensing is up 44% this year.
An Evolving Mission
According to Galbraith, although some aspects of growing up never change, social and technological advances have made the mission of the press more essential than ever before. While developmentally, children have the same concerns and face the same challenges as their forebears, there are added stressors that earlier generations did not have to contend with to such an extent. “The culture is more violent. There are guns in schools,” Galbraith explained. “That’s the kind of worry, fear, and stress that’s in kids’ lives now.”
Also, Galbraith said, family dynamics have changed, as increasing numbers of middle-class women have entered the workforce. “Both parents working does not leave time to focus on your child,” she said, “Schools are under more pressure to play the parent.”
And then there’s cyberbullying, which was nonexistent before the advent of the Internet. Free Spirit is releasing in December what Galbraith said is “one of the only books on cyberbullying that directly addresses teens,” as well as addressing both victims and perpetrators: Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral by Dr. Justin W. Patchin and Dr. Sameer Hinduja, two national experts on the topic.
Free Spirit has updated and is relaunching four of its most popular survival guides as a special line called the Free Spirit Survival Guides for Kids, among them The Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior Challenges by Dr. Thomas McIntyre and The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents) by Elizabeth Verdick and Dr. Elizabeth Reeve.
And, this month, Free Spirit, which publishes all of its books simultaneously in print and electronic formats, is releasing Being Me with OCD by Alison Dotson as an e-book, with a print edition to be published in March. Free Spirit had originally planned to publish Being Me with OCD electronically only, on the theory that readers may not want to be seen with a copy in their possession. But, due to a “terrific response” to it pre-publication, Free Spirit reversed its decision.
As her company enters its 31st year, Galbraith does not anticipate any great changes at the press, which formalized its mission only about 15 years ago and has not deviated from it since. Booksellers and an educator contacted by PW seem to think this is a solid decision. Ann Seton, manager of Hicklebee’s in San Jose, Calif., praised Free Spirit’s for being “thoughtful, targeted, well-researched, and right on-target.” They are steady sellers in her store, she says.
Sheryl Guidera, the co-owner of Kaleidoscope, in Capitola, Calif., said that Free Spirit publishes “great books, period.” She called out three bullying titles as being especially “empowering” for young readers: Weird, Dare, and Tough. “They can be read separately, but they go really well together,” Guidera said, adding that the subjects tackled by Free Spirit “are the things we’re always talking about with the schools.”
And Danielle Schultz, a school counselor in a Pittsburgh suburb, became so enamored of Free Spirit publications that she now writes guest columns for Free Spirit’s blog about how she uses the company’s products in the classroom. “If I’m looking for a book on a topic, I’ll look to Free Spirit first,” Schultz said. She had praise not just for the content of Free Spirit’s publications, but also for their appearance. “They put a lot of thought into what the book will look like, and even what the people in their books will look like,” she said. “They’re multicultural in a wide range of ways.”